“Righting historic wrongs”: Zak Ford-Williams on playing the ‘Elephant Man’

The actor playing Joseph Merrick tells us how a stage production arriving at the Grand Theatre next week is reclaiming a story of disability, belonging and acceptance

From Jolly Alice ‘the largest girl in the world’ to John Lester’s Midget Town in Blackpool Tower roof gardens, freak shows featuring human oddities and unusual bodies were a legitimate form of entertainment just half a century ago in our seaside town. But how should we reflect on our town’s history of making a spectacle – and profit – from bodily difference?

“It can be very difficult to reckon with,” says Zak Ford-Williams, the disabled actor playing Joseph Merrick, the eponymous character at the heart of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, which arrives in Blackpool on 17th October.

“Almost every place has some sort of cultural wrong or violent detritus that remains within their identity, sometimes as a core part of that identity,” he says. “I loved that Blackpool Grand is choosing the difficult option of confronting that problematic element of the town’s past by bringing this play to Blackpool. I think the play and its themes will work fantastically here, particularly in a theatre with such wonderful Victorian aesthetics as the Grand has. I hope it makes people think and consider some things in a new light.”

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicestershire in August 1862 and at the age of five began to show signs of a strange disorder that caused abnormal growths of much of the skin and bone across his body, including the size of his head increasing to three feet in circumference. Merrick was confined to a workhouse at age 17 before escaping four years later to join a freak show where he was displayed as the ‘The Elephant Man’.

Reframing Merrick’s story is the main objective of the play, which arrives in town following its European Premier at the Nottingham Playhouse.

“The play’s primary theme for me is the importance and removal of autonomy,” says Ford-Williams, who’s best known for playing Owen in BBC1’s Better. “Many people, particularly from marginalised groups experience the removal of autonomy. I do feel however that it has particular relevance to disabled people as we sometimes cannot live independently, but we should always be autonomous.

“Joseph’s journey through this play is one of having autonomy taken away, attempting to comply with a system with the hopes that autonomy may be returned to him, and eventually deciding to tear it back through sheer force of will. This is something that I can relate to.”

Some of the things that happen in Joseph’s life connect with some events in my own life, so it was a bit of a reckoning.

The radical re-imagining, described as a ‘theatre-poem’ and featuring pulsating live music and stunning visuals, centres Merrick’s personal story for the first time. It follows him from his East Midlands beginnings into a London thick with the grime of industrialisation, where he is an anomaly in a harsh and unforgiving world.

“Playing Joseph is an incredibly raw, emotional experience,” says Ford-Williams who has cerebral palsy and likes to use his wheelchair and condition as devices to add character, depth and authenticity to his roles. “Some of the things that happen in Joseph’s life connect with some events in my own life, so it was a bit of a reckoning. Plus it is incredibly energy intensive, and I’ve had to find new ways of economising my movement outside of performance, so as to give every audience the show they deserve. It’s all been very much worth it, and I’m very proud of what we have created.”

Whilst on exhibition, Merrick was discovered by London physician Frederick Treves, and admitted to London Hospital in 1886, aged 24. A letter that was published, in an unsuccessful effort to find Merrick a hospital for chronic medical cases, drew the attention of London society, which earned him a measure of fame and led to him receiving visits from a number of prominent individuals, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales. He remained hospitalised until he died in his sleep of accidental suffocation aged just 27.

In that time Treves published a book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. That, and other adaptations of Merrick’s story, Ford-Williams says, are part of a “historic wrong” that he feels the cast of the play is now righting. While it seems like a natural choice to cast a disabled actor in the role of Merrick, The Real and Imagined History sees Ford-Williams joined by a full cast of disabled, deaf and neurodivergent talent.

“One of the most fun things about having this type of cast is that almost everyone here has experienced something similar to the kind of oppression shown in this play,” he says. “This enables the work to be very grounded and real to people’s experiences in a way which I feel is unique and fresh. It’s also really fun to see disabled people reclaiming a story about a disabled person that has often been stolen from us and lauded by non-disabled people.”

As the London factories churn out uniformity, Merrick finds there is no place for a unique being like him and he searches for acceptance in a society that just wants to stare at him. Before he becomes a freak show spectacle, he joins a workhouse and the play explores the idea of people being viewed solely as workers.

While freak shows may be consigned to the past, the societal expectation of people to be economically productive is a prescient one and, having both a job in a creative industry and a disability, one Ford-Williams has unique insight into.

“Actors are currently finding themselves increasingly subject to a sector where they need to provide commercial value, not just art, in order for that sector to survive. We need to be ‘useful’,” he points out.

“With the economic hardship we as a country are experiencing, there are more and more questions being asked about the ‘usefulness’ of disabled people… Because we often fall outside of what is considered ‘useful’ economically in our culture, we are constantly having to fight to not be seen as superfluous.”

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man is at Blackpool Grand Theatre 17th-21st October. Get tickets here.

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