Wednesday 20 September 2023

 "The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man" by Tom Wright.

Nottingham Playhouse

This production of Tom Wright's play is having its' European premiere right here in Nottingham at the Playhouse.
Joseph Merrick travels from the Leicestershire to London when he is kicked out of his home after the death of his mother. The play follows him through the workhouse, until he was no longer able to roll the tobacco leaves into cigar shapes: the freak show, which is what is normally focused on, and the hospital, as he searches for acceptance in a society that just wants to stare at him and mock him. It's emotive and powerful as well as challenging to the actors telling this story. In fact it was more powerful than I had expected.
I've seen a couple of plays about Merrick, both not exhibiting the physical disfigurement of the character, and I don't think an audience needs to see this to get the story that's being told anyway. This version also concentrates more on his life down London in the hospital than on the time as a freak show exhibit. it shows the allies he forges and the misunderstanding of the disease Merrick had.

Zak Ford-Williams plays Merrick in a very human way and with flashes of comedy. The scene with Nurse Willison while she is providing his daily bathing and he lets her know that he can understand her is very comical, especially as she has been talking to him about some quite private information, all the while assuming that he didn't understand her.
This isn't an easy watch by any stretch of the imagination, and that is mainly due to Zak and the rest of the actors who make sure that what you're watching isn't easy and they want you to feel uncomfortable, and at times even guilty. What we see in this story is a gentle, intelligent man and not the physical disfigurement through nature. Nurture would have shown the real Joseph Merrick as opposed to the imagined man.
Annabelle Davis among ensemble parts, plays Miss Fordham, a young woman in the hospital with Merrick. Just as you really start to like the character, she then springs a surprise on Merrick, and then just before she leaves the stage, yet another. I won't spoil it by relating the two bombshells. Annabelle also plays quite a bossy nurse, explaining what is happening to Merrick's body, and what may happen in the future. Two very different character parts executed wonderfully.

Daneka Etchells, one of the disabled cast members, plays Mrs Highfield, as well as other ensemble parts.
Nadia Nadarajah plays Nurse Willison, and to me Nadia being deaf didn't do anything to distract me from the story she was telling. As I stated earlier with the Merrick bathing section, the comedy came across visually and easily.
Joseph Merrick's father is played by Tim Pritchett, who then went on to play several more roles in the ensemble. I actually grew to like Merrick's father at the start as he showed actual paternal concern for his son, and then he refused entry to their home when Joseph's mother died and told him that he had to make his own way in the world. Two conflicting emotions.
Killian Thomas Lefevre plays The Young Man, who acts as The Narrator. Killian also plays electric rock guitar in this play, another thing I was not expecting to see. The music creating a real gothic, uneasy feel about the play.

Directed by Stephen Bailey, he has shown us the kind of man Merrick may have been and highlighted just how bad disabled people were treated, almost like a figure of fun, at this time in history. A short first act followed by a longer second act meant that by the time the interval was over, you were sucked into this dark, gothic world of mental institutions and the people involved in them, on both sides of the fence. I was completely transfixed.

The Set and Costume Design is by Simon Kenny. The set really shows the smoky, dark London, almost in the way that any Jekyll and Hyde or Jack the Ripper play may be set. The eeriness was there which helped with the uneasy and uncomfortable feeling. Hanging from the roof were iron beams giving the feel of industry.
The sideshow consisted of a massive packing case, almost the kind of thing a zoo would keep wild animals in. There must be a comparison between the fact that people fear wild animals but are drawn to them out of interest and Joseph Merrick being teased out of his container "safe" place to be ogled at and feared by paying customers as part of the freak show.

Lighting designer is Jai Morjaria. Darkness played just as much a part in this play as the illuminated sections, like the hospital. The dark and smoky industrial scenes gave out as much danger, albeit unhidden when the well lit hospital scenes rolled on. A real sense of doom and foreboding was created by the dark but great use of illuminated strips to provide shape.
Sound Design and composer is Nicola T Chang. For me sound and light always go together to create the feel and atmosphere. The doom laden score was like a creeping menace slithering around the foot of your seats. It almost reminded me of sections from the score of "Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds" where you can actually feel unease through the music.

Cathy Waller is the Movement Director and for me this area really drove home to me the pain that Merrick must have been going through as his body seemed to form of its' own will. Through this visual representation we can imagine Merrick's shape and his pain.
I went into this show with the knowledge of what I had seen in other productions, but this exceeded everything that I dared to imagine. The power that these actors release through these characters, as well as the powerful story telling made sure that my eyes were never taken away from that stage. It should make you feel uneasy. It should make you feel a tinge of guilt as to the way that we treat people who may look and act different to ourselves. I always remember a phrase that I was taught at school, "do as you would be done by", in other words treat people the way that you would like to be treated by them. Look behind the outer wrapping because there could be a really nice present inside.

This is a play that will make you think about others, as well as yourself.
Photography is by Marc Brenner.
"The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man" by Tom Wright is at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 7 October.

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