I first encountered the true story of Joseph “John” Merrick in David Lynch’s classy and intensely moving film. Playwright Bernard Pomerance’s play of The Elephant Man hits many of the same beats, though it fixates on slightly different details. For those more familiar with the film, this downplays the emotional intimacy of Merrick’s friendship with Dr. Frederick Treves, has more poetic flourishes, and addresses his sexuality directly. In the cozy Attic Studio & Theatre, Wren Theatre offers up a modest, mostly compelling production.
In London of the late nineteenth century, Merrick (Jordan Imray), a man severely deformed by rare skin and bone diseases, is ostracized by society and exploited by an unscrupulous carnival leader. Fortunate enough to fall into the sphere of a compassionate and enterprising young physician, Treves (Robert Notman), he is cared for in the renowned Royal London Hospital. He becomes something of a sensation to London’s high society, receiving many disingenuous visitors.
One important distinction is his relationship to a celebrated actor, Mrs. Kendal (Karen Scobie). She is, at first, unsurprisingly taken aback by his appearance, though her shock and revulsion gradually subsides. His highly introspective interpretation of Romeo and Juliet speaks to her own intellect and she’s drawn to his emotional insight. Their scenes together are my favourites, especially the one in which he confides in her his desires. Scobie portrays Kendal’s empathetic response with an achingly human blend of grace and guardedness.
The supporting cast have compelling moments, fulfilling their narrative purpose admirably, though they often feel affected. Scobie, Notman and Imray provide the nuanced and persuasive emotional core of this production. Merrick’s affliction is the axis around which the story revolves. Imray’s physicality is crucial to selling Merrick’s plight, grounding us. His evocative bodily contortions are particularly effective, conjuring grotesque deformity in our mind’s eye without the need for prosthetics.
Most scenes are naturalistic, though there are poetic flourishes to express some of the play’s more fanciful points. The recurring presence of two Pinhead characters are a haunting reminder of Merrick’s abusive carnival life. A clever conceptual sequence that reverses Merrick and Treve’s dynamic conveys the notion that stifling attitudes and self-imposed mental traps can also be understood as deformities.
Scenic elements I initially feared would be distractingly artificial end up feeling remarkably authentic. As the play progresses, the flickering LED lamps really do give the impression of a world lit by gas light. The panels of faux brick are just photographs, but depending on the angle and quality of the light, the flat images look impressively three dimensional. The stage is flanked by netted curtains which convey an eerie sense of quarantine and precarious privacy.
Given the limited resources, the production is surprisingly atmospheric. Even director Tatum Lee’s more gaudy flourishes—like the bold choice to drench some scenes in garish red, pink or blue—work on a primal level. The dreamlike depiction of Merrick’s death has tremendous power; each gesture resonates.
Despite some minor weaknesses, this production hits the marks that really count.