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Theatre Review: The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man

A play of two halves in every sense, the Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, at the Grand Theatre this week, is a bold and brave production.

Bold, powerful and thought-provoking – this was a production that won’t be forgotten easily. But it was also a play of two halves. Though the audience was treated to dramatic power chords on the electric guitar, imaginative and evocative lighting and an abundance of bellowing dry ice, the first act failed to live up to its impressive effects.

It wasn’t until Act 2, that the real drama began, and the actors were given the opportunity to demonstrate their dramatic skills. Though Act 2 was uncomfortable viewing at times – it made us, the audience, feel like voyeurs and question our own attitude to disability – this was also theatre at its very best and its bravest. Surely, there wasn’t anyone in the audience after Joseph Merrick’s riveting final monologue who didn’t have a lump in their throat.

The play starts when Joseph – commonly referred to as the Elephant Man – is a young boy, and his mother recounts an incident when she was pregnant and was nearly trampled by a circus elephant. As late as the 19th century, it was still common thinking to believe that the emotional experiences of pregnant women could have lasting physical effects on the unborn child. Apparently, Merrick thought this to be the cause of his disability throughout his life. At this young age, Joseph didn’t have the severe deformities that he was later to become famous for, so no need for any elaborate makeup or prosthetics at this stage.

Zak Ford-Williams ingeniously used his body and his movements to convey Merrick’s physical deformities.

By all accounts, John Hurt had to endure eight hours of makeup application every morning when he played Merrick in the film The Elephant Man. But none of this for Zak Ford-Williams at any stage throughout the performance who instead ingeniously used his body and his movements to convey Merrick’s physical deformities. And because this is theatre, the audience are left with their imaginations to conjure up the enlarged skull, the warts and the misshapen limbs. This was a bold piece of directing and it certainly worked for me!

Act 1 was a strange mixture of the poetic and the mundane and the actors, who played multiple roles, weren’t given many occasions to develop their characters. I wondered why the narrator, in a long black leather coat and with electric guitar in hand, kept strumming out chords as if warming up for a guitar solo that never materialised. There were also some unexplained gaps in the story that made the first act seem somewhat fragmentary and heavy-handed. The second act was written in a very different manner (the narration was down to a minimum) and we got to see Merrick’s real character.

There was a very touching scene between Merrick and his nurse, sensitively played by Nadia Nadarajah, a deaf actor, who he starts to open up to about the abuse he has suffered. A later scene with Annabelle Davis as the blind Miss Fordham is also beautifully acted and made us think how the disabled are treated in our society today. Joseph Merrick believes he is forming real friendships with the nurses and the orderlies who attend him, something that was missing his entire life, but then he catches them ridiculing him and his world is torn apart. Zak Ford-Williams handled all the changes in Joseph’s emotions extremely well, culminating in his powerful and impassioned final speech.

Stephen Bailey was given the chance to direct this play after winning the 2022 Royal Theatrical Support Trust director award. He chose the remarkable Zak Ford-Williams, an actor with cerebral palsy, to play the lead. This was in many ways a very bold and brave production. I hope we will see a lot more of these two talented young men’s work in the future.

The Real and Imagined history of The Elephant Man is at the Grand Theatre until 21st October. Read our interview with Zak Ford Williams here.

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