★★★★½ Famous Victorian’s deformed body is but the starting point for a challenging, moving play about spectacle, difference and identity.

Merlyn Theatre, Melbourne
August 9, 2017

In the prologue of this new play by Tom Wright, a cast member invites the audience behind the curtain to witness the life of Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man. It will only cost sixpence to see this grossly deformed man, she says, as if we are being lured in to see a freak show.

The curtain rises, and for 100 minutes the question remains: on some level, is the audience responding to the performance as a spectacle of difference, even deformity? Beyond the historical subject matter of a man whose physical disability prompted both revulsion and morbid fascination, The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man’s casting puts difference front and centre.

All but one of the cast of five is female: Paula Arundell, a woman of colour; Emma J Hawkins, who is one metre tall; Sophie Ross, a classic blonde; and the eldest, Julie Forsyth. They slip between female and male roles, as well as across Victorian England’s classes, prompting numerous moments where we grapple with their characters’ identities. Is she playing a woman, a man, a child, a doctor, a nurse? Ultimately, we are forced to ask ourselves why such definitions are important.

Daniel Monks and Julia Forsyth

In the title role, Daniel Monks is an ever-present embodiment of difference, as he has a mobility disability: the limbs on his right side are underdeveloped and he has a prominent limp. Playing Merrick from child to adult, he contorts his body to hint at the significant physical changes in his character, but it is largely left to the imagination. Like those of his fellow cast members, his is a performance of the mind more than the body – of confronting ideas and a sense of self that Monks expresses with nuanced passion.

The cast, which is uniformly good, draw on a goldmine of a script by Wright, a multi-talented man of the theatre who is currently Belvoir’s Artistic Associate. The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man presents the facts, half-truths and myths of Merrick’s life: the notion that his deformity was caused in utero when his mother was terrified by a rampaging elephant; confusion about his name; his life as a spectacle, from desperate East End freak to comfortable but still constricted hospital patient, visited by aristocrats and actors motivated both by compassion and curiosity.

Wright takes this story well beyond engaging biographical narrative, and presents dirty, crowded industrial England as a monstrous place both repulsed by and drawn to difference. His ideas are large, existential ones, sometimes expressed with fleeting poetry. It’s a script one longs to get hold of to better appreciate its bittersweet beauty and wisdom.

Sophie Ross, Daniel Monks, Julia Forsyth, Paula Arundell and Emma J Hawkins

Directed by Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Director Matthew Lutton, this premiere of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man has an ease and simplicity that succeeds because of the quality of script and cast. Set and costume designer Marg Horwell hints at time and place on a black stage that is thick with moodily lit smoke in the early scenes – an atmospheric evocation of London’s steam, smoke and fog.

Her spartan set is little more than a few humble chairs and three mobile screens of light. Often glaring white when wheeled into place, but also casting a disturbing red or blue glow at times, these are part of Paul Jackson’s dynamic primary-colour lighting, which activates the space from multiple angles. Jethro Woodward’s sound design, including jagged violins and a needle quietly riding a record, underscores this play’s triumph of suggestion.

The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man doesn’t shy away from the physical; Joseph Merrick’s body is the play’s raison d’être after all. It demands that we confront the substance of life, and go beyond – to ask what it means to be human.

The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man is at the Merlyn Theatre, Melbourne, until August 27.