Joseph Merrick was just 27 when he died. Despite the implications of his nickname, his curved spine left him little more than 5ft 4ins in height – a tiny figure, even by Victorian standards.
Growths distorted his head and most of his body, leaving just a slight, almost feminine left arm and a pair of dark brown eyes as signs of the young man Joseph might have been.
As a former employee of the university which holds his remains, I have visited Joseph on half a dozen occasions, and observed the reactions of those who accompanied me.
Most fall immediately silent. You can’t quite believe the skeleton in front of you is real. The pain and suffering Joseph must have gone through becomes overwhelming.
You learn more about the man after spending five minutes with his bones and the casts taken of his limbs than through any book on his life.
Joseph’s remains are held in a private, locked room, in a medical school building around the corner from his former living quarters – now demolished – at The Royal London Hospital.
He’s not on public display, no longer a freak-show, but his story endures. Myths and misinformation circulate, requests to visit him (almost always declined) pour in. The public remains fascinated by the life and death of ‘The Elephant Man’.
Fourth Monkey Theatre Company’s production of Elephant Man was planned long before the announcement that Bradley Cooper’s different play of the same name would be crossing the pond to the West End.
This production, now playing at the Brockley Jack Theatre, in South London, until February 21, is an absolute triumph.
Daniel Chrisostomou’s Merrick is introduced as a shrieking, squealing, stinking animal, terrified and struggling to breathe. He’s slumped in the back room of a Whitechapel freak show where tourists pay a penny to gawp.
It’s unlikely the real Merrick was so loud, so animalistic, and a more subtle performance could also have worked, but it’s perfectly feasible that his treatment at the hands of the public might have made him this way.
They come to see a monster and a monster is what they’ll get.
Centre stage is a large wooden frame, by turns Merrick’s ‘cage’, his hospital bed, a theatre box, a train carriage and a cab. The beautiful simplicity of the idea works well in the fringe venue and is ideal for a touring production.
Merrick is visited by Frederick Treves (Scott McGarrick), a surgeon at the hospital over the road.
Fascinated, Treves urges Merrick’s ‘owner’ – a slimy, cockney showman (Adam Trussell), to part with his prized possession.
Treves is no saint, and the showman’s not quite the immoral bad guy he appears on first impression.
Did Treves genuinely care about his new ‘specimen’, or was he simply using him to win fame and respect from his medical peers? Did he grow to love Joseph, or grow to love his reputation as the man who discovered a medical marvel?
Merrick’s terror and shame as Treves prods and pokes him with indifference at a Pathological Society lecture makes painful and uncomfortable viewing.
Merrick was clearly a money-maker for his employer, but without the freak show, the workhouse or the streets were the only other options.
When the showman loses Merrick to Treves, is his genuine distress because of finances or had he really come to care for his ‘colleague’?
In a later scene, Merrick is invited to the estate of the rather nasty Lady Knightly (Ami Sayers), as a token bit of do-gooding. She may brag to her friends about her charity, yet doesn’t extend it to allowing Merrick into the house.
The moments where Merrick’s hand is held by the play’s other female characters are incredibly poignant.
He finds a platonic companionship with the charming daughter of Knightly’s gamekeeper – possibly the only character other than Merrick too innocent to have an ulterior motive.
His costume is inspired. Naked, underneath a wire and chain-mail cage shaped to Merrick’s bulbous limbs, Chrisostomou refrains from distorting his face or voice and instead acts beautifully with his eyes.
Through this cage you see the inner man, intelligent but childlike, innocent, and just as capable of pain or happiness as you or I.
The cage is a blatant, but genius, bit of symbolism that allows a far more powerful performance (and cheaper costume costs) than the prosthetics used in John Hurt’s film, or the more recent Ripper Street.
Treated with horror by the nurse assigned to care for him, Merrick asks Treves if, should he ever have to move again, he could perhaps stay in a blind asylum, so as not to offend the eyes of others.
That one line was utterly heart-breaking and, to my memory, the only time a single sentence in a play has caused tears to stream down my face.
The large youthful crowd, on a group trip, didn’t seem quite as touched. One noted in the loos afterward that she found it a bit boring.
I can understand how anyone not familiar with Merrick’s story might be slightly disappointed with the plot.
He wasn’t a Rainman-style savant. He didn’t perform incredible feats. There’s no dramatic centre-piece in the real Joseph’s story.
Were the teenagers in the audience so used to modern day freak-shows, as seen on Channel 4, that they were just expecting something.. more?
The scene where Treves’ hospital nemesis, Dr Reginald Tuckett, attacks and strips a nurse to humiliate Merrick was not, to my knowledge, based on fact, and felt like a token attempt to appease those expecting a little more dramatic action.
Merrick, a man well used to being paraded naked for the masses, immediately covers the nurse’s shame with his blanket.
Treated with hatred or at the very least disdain by so many people, this so-called monster remained kind and humble in the face of their ugliness.
The Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel, which is open and free to the public, contains a perfect replica of Joseph’s skeleton.
Next to it are the huge veiled hat that he used to cover his face in public, and the most beautifully detailed model of a church he created out of playing cards during his stay at The London. I’d urge you to visit, if you haven’t already.
Fourth Monkey’s Elephant Man is simple and beautiful in its execution, uplifting, unforgettable and, worryingly for Hollywood heartthrob Mr Cooper, attracting much better reviews.