Like the 'Elephant Man' himself, Bradley Cooper is undoubtedly the main draw in this revival of Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award winning play. Audiences will likely be packed out to gawp at the Oscar-nominated actor throughout the play’s twelve week run, proving the marketing appeal of such star casting.
Yet The Elephant Man deserves to stand on its own right. Pomerance’s play is based on a 19th century true story and has more than a shade of Frankenstein as it similarly explores the integration of a monstrous outsider into society. Like Shelley’s monster, Joseph Merrick (Cooper) is a philosophical, Romantic thinker, childlike in his naivety and misjudged by society. Taken in by scientist Dr. Treves (Alessandro Nivola) who discovers Merrick in a circus freak show, he is introduced to high society where a tender friendship forms with actress Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson). It’s a play that touches on multiple themes: voyeurism, science vs religion, the power of art as illusion, and what it means to be a man in society.
As you might expect, the script is wordy and dense, and there’s very little ‘action’. Visually, the production is minimal, with curtains drawn across the stage to delineate time and space, and subtle lighting design from Philip S. Rosenberg that provides a sense of gothic atmosphere and shadow. Yet the play is brief and moves along at a brisk pace, presenting its themes and philosophy without outstaying its welcome (though its ending is quite sudden). It’s a thoroughly compelling and thought-provoking piece.
So what of Cooper’s acting? Those expecting prosthetics in his representation of the titular ‘Elephant Man’ will be disappointed – cleverly, his character’s disfigurement is left to the imagination beyond some remarkable physicality as Cooper expertly contorts his face and body, even when not directly involved in a scene. It’s a move that ensures we witness the man beneath the deformity, whilst still highlighting his difference. Clear yet softly spoken, Cooper’s Merrick is a compassionate and endearing character – a brilliant mind trapped in a frightening body. He’s joined on-stage by a great supporting cast. In Nivola’s Dr. Treves we witness an acute scientific mind deteriorating into a weary and protective parent, angry at the injustice of the world. Clarkson, meanwhile, capably brings to life the complex Mrs. Kendal, a woman torn between fear, friendship and motherly affection.
As the lights slowly dim on Merrick at the end of the first act, it provides a powerful image of an innocent man we cannot help but sympathise with. Cooper really does offer a stunning turn – for once that star casting is wholeheartedly worthwhile.
Watch: The Elephant Man runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 8th August.
Image: Joan Marcus