18 June 2015
This 2015 Revival of The Elephant Man is an average production of a bland play with competent actors. It tells the story John Merrick (played by Bradley Cooper), a disfigured Victorian who is saved from the life of a circus sideshow by surgeon Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola). Treves teaches John the ways of the upper crust and uses the famed actress Madge Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) to help him learn human interaction. John ascends the ranks of high society until he dies an untimely death of asphyxiation.
Normally I would not use a play’s text as the focus for criticism, but Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 script sullies the chance of this being an excellent production. It is a cacophony of tired Victorian-era themes and sentimentality: science vs. religion, prudishness and the hideousness of the upper classes—yes Pomerance, we know you think they are uglier than Merrick is! It is uninventive but this belies its greatest flaw: it violates the show-don’t-tell rule too often. Treves’ monologue preceding Merrick’s death is a corny mess of inchoate philosophy and poor attempts at sympathy. The Elephant Man is more of an essay than a play. The audience knows what will happen in the end; they can predict the love story; Merrick’s death is no shock. We learn very little new after having watched it. The one saving grace is the potential humanity of the actor who portrays Merrick.
Fortunately, Bradley Cooper delivers that humanity. His modest vocal style immediately generates the audience’s sympathy. We pity him all the more by knowing he will face an untimely end. Cooper’s ability to convey Merrick’s curiosity makes us will Merrick to have crucial human experiences before he dies: we want him to create, socialise and even romance. Cooper also successfully physicalises Merrick’s disability; Pomerance’s play is noted for the lack of prosthetics and so Merrick disability is conveyed through action alone. This is explicit when Treves delivers his medical report on Merrick: Merrick begins the scene standing there as a healthy man, but as Treves reads out his various disabilities, he contorts his body until Merrick is present in his full deformity. The other main actors, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson, are competent but ultimately unenjoyable. Nivola tends to bore and overreacts in his climactic monologue. Clarkson is better but is forced to play her mostly unfunny lines for laughs.
If one ignores the flaws in the script, the major problem with the production is how unimaginative director Scott Ellis has been. There is nothing theatrically inventive here. The stage is a drab wooden slab with a moving curtain that weakly draws parallels to the circus and an operating theatre. In conclusion, the only reason to see The Elephant Man is for Cooper, but not because of his fame, but because he is good. Otherwise, for a better exploration of the character of Merrick it is best to stick with the 1980 Lynch film.