Freak or Unique? Spotlight on Perceptions of Normal
Zak Ford-Williams as Joseph Merrick - the Elephant Man. Photo © brennenphotos.
The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man, written by Tom Wright at the Belgrade Theatre, until Saturday 28 October 2023.
Review by Annetta Kinsella.
‘Freak’ or unique?: dystopian performance shines a spotlight on perceptions of normal.
About ten years ago I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road. This is not the kind of film I usually go to see, but I was glad I did because it contained one of the best action scenes ever, which was a man playing a flamethrowing guitar on the back of an enormous monster truck speeding through the desert. This character was not at all integral to the plot but he stuck with me, and I’m clearly not the only one because when I googled this scene prior to writing this review I found there are whole wiki pages devoted to this character (his name is the Doof Warrior, if anyone is interested).
I thought I’d never see such an impactful scene again in any show, which proved true. Until. Last. Night.
The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man, directed by Stephen Bailey, begins with a bang. A crowd of Victorian circus barkers take the stage with their spiel showcasing the spectacles in their freak show. So far, so unmemorable. But then the curtain raises to reveal a set shrouded in mist, accompanied by a cacophony of sound. Against a backdrop of falling rusted girders, the lone leather-clad guitarist-narrator (Killian Thomas Lefevre) steps from the shadows, followed by a monolithic illuminated black box which opens to reveal Zak Ford-Williams as Joseph Merrick, the eponymous Elephant Man.
Killian Thomas Lefevre. Photo ©brennenphotos.
It’s every bit as dystopian as Mad Max and totally awesome, if that’s the right description for the opening of a play that has a real-life story of the worst and best of humanity as its subject matter.
For those who don’t know, the Elephant Man was John (actually Joseph) Merrick, a man born in the mid-1800s with a progressive congenital disorder which caused him to develop enormous growths of bone and tissue. Forced to make a living as an exhibit in freak shows, he was eventually befriended by surgeon Frederick Treves, who recognised that beneath his condition lay a civilised and refined character, and allowed him to live out his life in the London Hospital.
Daneka Etchells, Tim Pritchett, Annabelle Davis, Zak-Ford Williams and Nadia Nadarajah. ©brennenphotos.
Merrick was portrayed most famously and sensitively by John Hurt in the 1980 film The Elephant Man. But I believe this performance has the edge on the cinematic version. It is given extra resonance by the cast, which were all deaf, disabled or neurodivergent. Ford-Williams in particular shines, bringing a newfound defiance to Merrick and portraying him as a fully rounded character, rather than a one-sided Christ-like figure. Nadia Nadarajah as Merrick’s nurse also stands out, especially in the final scenes when Merrick discovers to his horror that she and fellow staff members have dressed up in a gross parody of his condition at a fancy-dress ball.
Despite the Victorian setting, the play’s themes are placed firmly in the present with the help of modern-day surroundings and costumes. The topics of judgement, spectacle and public space is never more significant than today, when the prevalence of mobile phones and social media means there is potential for anyone to become a freak show exhibit at any time. The clever staging meant the camera was turned on the audience, forcing us to consider our roles as spectators and mediators of normalcy.
Zak-Ford Williams and Nadia Nadarajah. ©brennenphotos.
Although the second half dragged slightly more than the first, this did not detract from the sparkling performances and impressive set. And nor were these the only remarkable aspect of this show – curtain up was delayed by 30 minutes due to cast member Annabelle Davis falling ill midway through the afternoon, meaning the show had to be reworked and a very capable stand-in drafted in. The unexpected events in no way diminished the power of the performance, which was testament to the professionalism and talent of the cast and crew.
Zak-Ford Williams. ©brennenphotos.
Overall, it’s unusual to go to the theatre and come away with an altered worldview, but the Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man manages it. And it didn’t even need a guy on a lorry playing a blazing guitar.