When casting the role of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, the actor’s physical appearance is irrelevant.
“First off, you can’t find anybody that looks like him,” said director Anton Solomon.
“Casting an actor to play the character is casting someone who understands that vulnerability is his strength — that demonstrating an emotion is more important than just having it,” said Solomon.
Since the play’s 1978 premiere on Broadway, the role of Joseph Merrick has attracted the likes of David Bowie and Star Wars’ Mark Hamill. Unlike John Hurt’s make-up heavy portrayal of Merrick in the 1980 film The Elephant Man, the play demands that no makeup or prosthetics be used on the lead actor.
“It’s an effort for the actor, not an effort for the makeup or special effects teams, which to my mind makes the play more accessible to an audience,” said Solomon.
“They see that effort as a person trying to struggle through a disability, rather than an actor trying to struggle through a makeup apparatus,” he said.
Born in 1862, Joseph Merrick was afflicted by a rare congenital defect that made his body extremely deformed. His early life filled with abuse, rejection and scorn — Merrick achieved notoriety among English gentry in the final four years of his life.
One of the audience’s first introductions to Joseph Merrick occurs in a scene where his physical condition is described in a medical lecture by Dr. Frederick Treves.
“That scene is where we build the Elephant Man for the audience,” said Solomon.
While he is not weighed down under six hours of makeup, Winluck Wong, who plays Merrick, nevertheless stays within the character’s difficult physical boundaries.
He walks at a slant, moves his head slowly as if it had the enormity of Merrick’s and he keeps his facial expression to a minimum.
“I have to use my whole torso to try and communicate whatever emotions I’m trying to convey,” said Wong.
Wong’s real task is not to portray a battered cripple, but the desperation and loneliness that dwells within Merrick’s twisted flesh.
A poet and romantic on the inside, Merrick’s appearance tragically guaranteed the unlikelihood of his ever finding female companionship.
“Even the woman that does grow to care for him says it’s really unlikely,” said Solomon.
Merrick lived during Britain’s Victoria era, a period widely regarded as the climax of English haughtiness and sensibility. Yet beneath the country’s thin gilded veil of refinement lay a society marred with child labour, prostitution and rampant poverty.
Solomon argues that Merrick might never have achieved the same level of fame had he not lived within the Victoria era.
The Victorians, obsessed with novelty, “were enamoured at the fact that he was literate and intelligent inside the body that Merrick possessed, they just couldn’t believe it,” said Solomon.
Yet, in the opinion of the playwright, said Solomon, Merrick comes to represent the lower classes over which the British aristocracy ruled.
“The British Empire was built on the shoulders and backs of people like Merrick, people who had wants and desires and dreams, but were considered, for whatever reason, less important to those in power,” said Solomon.
“There is no question that there were people with as or worse disadvantages than Merrick had, but because he was so visibly deformed and reasonably eloquent, it was like ‘oh, isn’t it marvellous what we are able to do for him, isn’t is wonderful that we were able to see through that facade,’” he said.
The result is merely an “upscale” freak show, says Solomon.
“He’s placed into a society that treats him better, but doesn’t think of him as such,” he said.
“Every day he becomes more aware of everything he’s not.”
In a sense, Merrick’s deformities freed him from the societal falsehoods of the era.
“He had not been trained his whole life to hide behind a Victorian veneer,” said Winluck Wong, who plays Merrick.
Yet Merrick’s desire to be accepted threatens whatever “purity” his condition has afforded him.
In retaining his coveted position, Merrick tragically begins to adopt the cutthroat social devices that had held him down for most of his life.
“Now that he has a home and friends and is secure and doesn’t need to be in the freak show anymore — he values it enough in order to sacrifice other members to get it,” said Solomon.
Solomon opted for an extremely minimalist set design.
“What I hope to get out of the set is that we are in an environment that is regulated and symmetrical and not a lot of ways in and out of it,” said Solomon.
And while the effect isn’t meant to be glaringly obvious, the stage is loosely divided into three separate components in a virtual three ring circus. Merrick stays in the centre and the “rest of society” dwells in the outer two rings.
Solomon looked to conduct the play under a latent carnivalistic atmosphere reminiscent of Merrick’s early employment in a carnival sideshow.
Throughout, the well-known film takes a decidedly different tack from the play. Rather than a purely historical adaptation, the play is more impressionistic — presenting a rich stable of symbolic devices, both overt and subtle.
Solomon’s carnival atmosphere is enhanced as characters occasionally enter into near-vaudeville setups.
In the last four years of his life, Merrick built, with his one workable hand, a cardboard model of St. Philip’s cathedral in Birmingham. Taking centre stage in numerous scenes, the model comes to represent the emotion and clarity that lies within Merrick’s own deformities.
The play goes right to the final night of Merrick’s life, when he chose to sleep laying down, rather than sitting up – as his massive head had always required.
Solomon interprets it as the final step to Merrick’s transformation into real society.
“He’s at a point where he’s either a member of society or he’s not — and he figured that if he could sleep like them and wake up from it, he would be fine,” said Solomon.
On April 11, 1890, at the age of 27, Merrick was found dead after his head became accidentally dislocated from his body.
The Elephant Man opens tonight and runs until the 15th, and then from the 18th to the 22nd at the Wood Street Centre. Tickets are available at Well-Read Books. They cost $15 apiece.
Contact Tristin Hopper at email@example.com