The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man

Malthouse Elephant Man Daniel Monks, Julia Forsyth - photo by Pia JohnsonOne of the strengths of Tom Wright’s script and Matthew Lutton’s direction is how the piece sits in two worlds. They do so well to place it in a London transformed by the industrial revolution, a place of smoke and noise, while also keeping a stake in the present. In one of Joseph Merrick’s final speeches, actor Daniel Monks isn’t railing against his hospital masters so much as he is speaking to the modern-day experience of the impaired living in an able-dominated world.

Apart from Daniel, the other actors played multiple characters, something Bernard Pomerance employed in his 1977 version of Merrick’s story. Julie Forsyth displayed nearly as much metamorphosis as the character of Merrick in an admirable series of roles. Sophie Ross was splendid, particularly in the beginning playing Joseph’s father – a man seeing his agrarian life disappear and with it, some of his identity.

Paula Arundell did lovely work throughout, including the difficult task of kicking things off. Clad in long black like an Adore-era Billy Corgan, Paula stood downstage and considered the audience, speaking of the time we live in and the creatures we share it with, eventually revealing herself as the proprietor of the freak show Merrick finds himself in later.

As teleportation goes, it was an adept way to pull the audience in, before throwing us back into Merrick’s past. The smoke slithering around and under the gauze curtain is many things – cheap carnival theatrics at the opening, the uncertainty of Merrick’s father’s plight, a symbol of industry, and mostly the pea-soup characteristic most associated with London itself.

Emma Hawkins was exceptional – from her first scene admonishing Merrick on a production line as he struggles with the irregular changes to his body, to her last as one of Merrick’s nurses who help him realise that for all the supposed care, he will never truly escape the freak show.

Daniel Monks was brilliant as Joseph Merrick. Through the engaging (heart)beat of each scene flaring up from blackout, he builds Merrick from familiar elements, yet the character is utterly his own. As alien as Merrick’s deformations are, as alien as some scenes are staged, Daniel keeps things coherent – leading a story that is often tragic and grotesque but always human.

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man is a theatrical Gestalt – a whole greater than the sum of its parts (and these are some very, very talented parts). This show was a gift. Salutations to Ganesha.

The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man
Merlyn Theatre – The Coopers Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Wednesday 9 August 2017 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 27 August 2017
Information and Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au

Image: Daniel Monks and Julia Forsyth in The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man – photo by Pia Johnson

Review: David Collins

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