The Elephant Man
Bristol Old Vic
05/07/2018 at 14.30pm
The Elephant Man, currently playing at Bristol Old Vic, is the product of a successful partnership between the theatre, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (BOVTS) and Diverse City. However, this production of Bernard Pomerance’s play about the life of John Merrick – known as The Elephant Man – is ultimately the graduate school production for BOVTS.
John Merrick has become part of popular culture and curiosity. Not a bad achievement for a man born in 1862, dying in 1890 and having significant deformities to his head and body.
Co-Artistic Director of Diverse City, Jamie Beddard, took the part of Merrick. Beddard himself is a disabled actor and thank goodness we are starting the long-slow trudge towards bringing equity into theatre making. It shouldn’t be unusual to feature a disabled actor in a main part in mainstream theatre. It’s even more ridiculous when you consider that the main character has a disability which is central to the story.
But here we are at last and Beddard’s performance was beautiful. It was deeply moving and charismatic. From the dry humour, to the pitying looks quietly given to those who were pitying him. The quiet suffering and vulnerability. The witty retorts. The final deliberate death scene was a deeply moving moment.
But whilst this is theatre, this is also real. It doesn’t matter that it happened over 100 years ago. Director Lee Lyford holds a mirror up to our society and shows us that actually, not much has really changed in terms of attitude and inclusion. We pretends it’s there and Merrick’s treatment has been consigned to the history books, and perhaps it has from a medical point of view.
But as a wider society, we have so much more to do. In 2018, people are considered too disabled to be allowed to take part in society or not disabled enough and are fighting for adjustments. They are fighting for DLA, PIP, ESA, EHCPs and various other random consonants and vowels that society begrudgingly bestows and all too frequently removes.
Disabled people – or for those who prefer person first language – people with disabilities – are still exhibited. They are still subjected to the indignity of Atos assessments. Capita appointments. They are still forced to justify their existence. Subject to scrutiny, pet projects, pity, fear and all because we Other them.
Caitlin Abbott’s design for the play was perfect. We never forget the fairground world that Merrick comes from and is still encompassed in, even when he’s literally left it far behind. The circus is always there and mirrored in the quiet cello of composer Adrienne Quartly’s music. Any parent who has fought for rights supposedly enshrined by law in the Equality Act 2010 will know that the disability circus continues to this day. The merry-go-round hasn’t stopped.
I read a social media criticism comment on some transient mobile feed that said this production did not go far enough in terms of relating Pomerance’s play to now. But actually, I feel that is quite wrong. Our behaviour might be more civilised, but disablism is everywhere. In our schools, our shops, our streets, on social media comments and parenting forums.
The government announced today that it was funding additional training for police call handlers to identify and support people contacting them about hate crime of which disability is one. Like Merrick in Victorian times, people with disabilities are still attacked and hounded by angry mobs. Remember disabled Bijan Ebrahimi in 2013? We should do.
Alex Wilson brings gravitas to Frederick Treves, the curious and well intentioned medic who ‘rescues’ Merrick.
Gráinne O’Mahony as Mrs Kendal, forges a genuinely touching relationship with Beddard. She brings warmth and humour to the role, along with empathy and it’s a sad moment when the pair are parted.
Madeleine Schofield brought some much needed light relief as Miss Sandwich as did Liyah Summers as Princess Alexandra.
As a collective ensemble piece supported by a creative and technical team of first year students and up and coming graduates, this was a great piece of theatre.
Sometimes the best theatre isn’t always the most polished or the least flawed. It’s not the theatre with the stunt casting, the relentless marketing team or the high production values.
Sometimes, they are the understated shows that make you think. The ones you might miss. They connect you with difficult subject matter or challenge the way you see the world around you. They are the ones that tell the story of the man society tried to destroy, to marginalise, to ridicule. They are telling you that story more than 100 years after that man died and warning you that it’s about time things changed.
The Elephant Man finishes at Bristol Old Vic on Saturday 07 July 2018. Catch it if you can because it’s a really profound piece of theatre.
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