As the third production in a year of plays that have tackled subjects such as war and clinical depression, The Elephant Man, a play about horrific physical deformity, is yet another grim offering from CTC. It’s a brave choice, resulting in a production not without faults, but well worth seeing.
Hugh Train was astonishingly good as the title character, John Merrick, a man whose physical deformities have caused him to be abandoned, abused and exploited throughout his life. Train’s commitment to the role must be commended; maintaining the bodily contortions required to portray Merrick can’t have been pleasant. He brought humanity to the character without succumbing to pathos.
Train was matched admirably by Olivia Race as Mrs Kendal, an actress who develops a deep emotional connection with Merrick. The naturalness of her delivery was a delight to watch, and her scenes with Train were undoubtedly the most moving of the play. They acted as a respite from the horror and discomfort of Merrick’s situation – for both the characters and the audience.
George Rexstrew’s Frederick Treves was a model of gravity and Victorian repression. His characterisation was solid but seemed a little uninteresting when compared with the intensity of Merrick’s personal story. He succeeds in embodying the patronising voice of well-meaning nineteenth century efforts to help the less fortunate; his mantra ‘for your own good’ immediately took on a chilling tone. The utter collapse in his confidence towards the end was portrayed with great subtlety.
One minor criticism I do have is to do with the acoustics of the setting: some actors tended to deliver lines facing upstage or tailed off towards the end of sentences, leading to the lines being totally lost. A little more care in delivery would easily remedy this. Actors should take their cue from Mike Bedigan, whose voice resounded through the hall with apparent ease, and Train, who made his lines intelligible even in the garbled and stuttering voice of Merrick.
The music used in this production, while effective initially as a suitably eerie backdrop, became a little monotonous. It felt slightly too cinematic and melodramatic for this kind of realistic theatre.
Finally, there was a tendency for scenes to slow down towards the end, with ponderous delivery of closing lines and slow fading to black. While this suited some moments, lingering over the emotion and philosophical/moral dilemmas posed in the scene, I feel the play would have benefitted from some more variation in pace.
The set design was excellent, although the spatial capabilities of Castle’s Great Hall (somewhat ironically) leave much to be desired. The tech team did the best they could with a limited backstage area, although it is always irritating when the TD and stage crew are so visible. And apart from an initial issue with the house lights, light and sound were seamless.
The Elephant Man is a complex examination of what it means to be ‘normal’, an evocation of a perverse and exploitative era of English history, and a debate on the nature of humanity. Perhaps inevitably therefore, this production tends towards melodrama. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening’s entertainment.
Photograph: Matt Hoser