The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance
Notes on the original Foco Novo production by Roland Rees 2011

It was 1977, and since 1970 Bernard Pomerance, the writer, and I, had developed a close relationship working on a number of his plays. This time however Bernard had approached other directors. He did not find one who had the confidence needed to respond to his play The Elephant Man, and gave it to me to read. Previously we had worked only on American plays in subject matter, this was an English story.

By the time it took the 159 bus to travel between Piccadilly Circus and my home near the Abbey Road Studios in St. John’s Wood, I had read the text and knew how I would tackle the difficult problem of presenting John Merrick, (the Elephant Man) on stage.

Bernard told me his brother had brought to his attention a book just published called John Merrick,-The True Story of the Elephant Man (by Michael Howard and Peter Ford). I had been looking for a play for my company, Foco Novo’s autumn tour. Bernard ‘s play, which he had written in response to this book and Merrick’s Dr Frederick Treves’s own Note Books & Reminiscences, became our new production.

There was one small problem. The play at that time was called Deformed, a title which would not endear itself to producers or audiences, also the text only barely suggested how Merrick could be presented. The author suggested that he preferred a non-made up actor, to one that had the full baggage of a physically or prosthetic achieved transformation (as seen in the later eponymous film, the actor John Hurt’s 6 hours every day in make-up!).

What attracted me was the character of Treves the Doctor, in relation to the Elephant Man. The theme of the play is the nature of Charity that existed in Victorian England. Merrick, being rescued by Treves and under his personal protection, exchanged being shown as a freak in a travelling circus where people paid money to see him on public display, for a private room in the basement of the London Hospital, where aristocratic and celebrated Patrons could view him, and donate monies to the hospital, another form of voyeurism under the guise of philanthropy.

The photos of Merrick taken in the 1880’s became central to the production of the play. They allowed the actor to transform themselves from an ordinary body into a facsimile of Merrick, which would in some way cast a spell over the audience for the rest of the play. The question still remained how to present Merrick – naked or clothed -? (There were no instructions provided in the original unpublished text.) One Sunday during but away from rehearsals, I found myself at a friend’s house looking at his father HE Popham’s book of Renaissance drawings and turned to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, arms and legs outstretched naked within his perfect circle. I knew at that moment I had found the answer to our problem. The transformation occurs in Sc.3. and it is the crucial moment in the play. The actor/ Dr.Treves is lecturing the audience/Medical Profession, as in an Anatomy Theatre, by pointing with his stick to a screen onto which original slides of the Elephant Man are projected. Meanwhile almost imperceptibly, the actor moves his spine into a coiled position, one arm hanging down loosely and much longer looking than the shorter usable arm, thereby achieving the stance of the Elephant Man. This image which the actor David Schofield so brilliantly achieved became the prototype for most of the subsequent productions of the play – including David Bowie on Broadway (not my original production) who insisted on wearing a dhoti!

Schofield’s exceptional performance was enhanced by the set of Tanya McCallin. The shape of the set was a misaligned rhomboid, much influenced by Francis Bacon’s series of ‘Pope’ Paintings on show at the Tate gallery where they are caught in a similarly misshaped frame. A raked stage with a raised dais within which Merrick was mostly confined, served as his main acting area, containing a bath a bed, table and chair. By the side of the stage, a cellist played Bach. Elements of Rees’s original production are copied in production are copied in productions around the world.

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