elephant man

Zak Ford-Williams as Joseph Carey Merrick. Pictures: Marc Brenner

The Real and Imagined History

of the Elephant Man

Coventry Belgrade


Forty three years ago, David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated film The Elephant Man was launched, starring John Hurt as the appallingly disfigured Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-90) and Anthony Hopkins as the surgeon who seeks to restore dignity and self-respect to a hapless young man trapped in his own distorted skin, and mocked by freak show or circus audiences as a repulsive, ugly monster.   

Hurt’s performance was simply stupendous. How dare anyone set out to mount a stage play that comes remotely near the hitherto unmatched excellence of that landmark movie account of Merrick’s sufferings?

Well, Coventry audiences have just found out. Scriptwriter Tom Wright and director Stephen Bailey have certainly done so here. Toured to the Belgrade, Nottingham Playhouse’s The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man is one of the best, perhaps the best, staging of any play I have seen in 2023.

It’s in a class of its own. Indeed one of the finest, most moving stageworks the supremely inventive Nottingham company has produced during the whole time I have been reviewing them (originally, for The Independent).

The at times surreal, symbolic set and lighting effects (Simon Kenny and Jai Morjaria) had a haunting impact right from the start. When that changes latterly to a (mental) hospital location, the Chelsea Royal Infirmary, the grimness of the grey-greens and beige-browns hammer home the awfulness of it all: the baldness, emptiness and oppressiveness of the institutional.

We do not meet other patients, or subjects of investigation, but we can imagine them. As for prodding our imaginations, huge sprouting gourds ‘of human substance’, presumably securing a fair number of ‘scrotal sacs’, give one a feel for the dissection-chamber.

The half-dozen strong cast is excellent in every possible respect, as indeed is Nicola T. Chang’s sensitive, well-conceived, sometimes almost francophone musical score. An astounding triumph for Killian Thomas Lefevre, just four years out of drama school (Guildford) and already renowned for the role of ‘Tink’ in the rock musical Bat Out Of Hell (the music of Meatloaf), plays a literal flood of roles, including as narrator, interacter, lecturer, and as the chief medic (the Hopkins role) whose sympathetic commitment to helping – salvaging and salving – his willing patient is deeply affecting.

fun fair freak

Merrick scratched a living as a freak show exhibit - even touring Europe

Lefevre’s speaking is stunning, admirably strong and assured, exceptional, a model of stagecraft: his authoritative performance acts as the glue which holds the parts of this rich and finely structured narrative together. Indeed, the articulation of all the ancillary cast (Daneka Etchells, magnificent; Nadia Nadarajah, immensely appealing; Tim Pritchett, commanding, and as Joseph’s father particularly first-rate in an extended exchange with the boy; and the excellent Rose Wardlaw standing in for Annabelle Davis) was impossible to fault. Their immersion in text and story alike was impressive at every turn. Thanks to them, there was not a single second when this gripping theatrical adventure flagged. The standard was A1 at every turn.

But what lifted this play adaptation by Tom Wright to the very heights of theatrical achievement was young Zak Ford-Williams’ treatment of the central role of Merrick himself: broadly the same age – still in his twenties - as the actor himself (and Lefevre too). One of the most astonishing, awe-inspiring performances by a young actor I have seen – ever.

Merrick is not – the point is made very clear – mentally deficient. In fact he is very bright. We hear him speaking perfectly normally early on, but once he is turned - cruelly corrupted - into a humiliating circus act, for a long time he does not speak. He keeps himself to himself. For fear of being further mocked. Only latterly does one of the nurses (Agnes - Nurse Willison, Nadia Nadarajah) perceive that his silence is self-imposed, and can be rectified simply by encouragement. His intelligence and entrancing vocabulary – of almost academic quality - are revealed in the second half; and as they emerge, so are Joseph’s remarkable sensitivity, and kindness to others, and grasp of complex social and moral issues, revealed.

A revelation like no other, although one is reminded of those small raw ‘wild’ boys, discovered lost in the forests of 19th century France or Germany who are nursed back to interact with humanity.

If Stephen Bailey’s direction – endlessly astute, insighted, tight, every tiny detail inventively thought through – is what gives this undoubted masterpiece its fire and explosive power even when it is (so often) restrained, reflective, tender and touching, it is his handling of the ‘abused’ ‘victim’ (though the text is far subtler than to deploy modern clichés) which cries aloud the phenomenal qualities of director and actor alike.

John Hurt nearly gained a leading actor Oscar for his portrayal of an (accurately) horrendously skull-disfigured yet searingly tender-hearted Merrick.

If an Oscar’s not viable, Zak Ford-Williams deserves at least a UK Theatre Award for his creation here.  

Warmth, kindness, common decency, dignity, attentiveness, a strong sense of respect apart, perhaps the most important thing about Zak as Merrick is that he is not cowed, not diminished, not crushed by his experiences. He stands up for himself, fights his corner, doesn’t suffer fools lightly. We weep for him, but we don’t have to. He asks questions of his supposed mentors, but often has the answers already. So far from being stupid, he is wise. Puzzled, but perceptive. ‘A body at war with itself’, but a survivor.


Tim Pritchett as Joseph's father 

 ne way Zac and Stephen get this across is by much superb pacing. While pauses and silences and hesitations are used to beautiful effect, increasingly Joseph replies to an interlocutor with a quickfire response: in musical terms, an attacca; a kind of follow-on enjambement. Nurse: ‘that I am… unhappy.’ Merrick (instantly): ARE you unhappy?

Another thing Wright’s script uses to give Merrick character is a remarkable flow of poetry early on. His use of language, of entrancing sounds and images, is truly beautiful. Visionary. He may describe himself as a pachyderm, but he’s the sweetest one ever. Philosophy abounds. It’s he who is teaching us. ‘We must be in this world, but not of it’; ‘You make an art form out of loneliness’; ‘They say you will just be going on being yourself for ever.’ ‘I am not a freak…to be kept in a cage. I am a new species.’

But it’s the moves with which Ford-Williams expresses the most. It’s they that are the clue both to his suffering and to his extraordinary buoyancy and willpower, tenacity, guts and stamina to overcome it. He brings in his train a range of moves more varied than a Sher or Olivier. He is a maze of congenital deficiencies. He squirms, arches, jerks, shivers, flails, drops one shoulder, droops fingers and wrists (one-sided: rarely both at the same time); limps, feet differently inturned; hunched, scrunched, angled, awkward; gasping, or – conversely – intentionally dormant. John Hurt relies on the massive protuberance and the beautiful passivity of Merrick’s personality and speaking. Here there is, if anything, wider, richer variety.

The growth, we learn, started ‘when I was a lad’. At one point he is a destitute small child, then a questing boy in class: exiled but not alienated.  Hauls himself along the floor like a python. As the play progresses, Zac’s Joseph, indeed the play as a whole, reveals its true credentials. This is wonderful Czech-German Expressionist theatre of the early 1900s. Plays about the put-upon ‘little man’, who shakes off his shackles, abjures authority - starchy, knowing medics (‘We could saw off the bone spurs’. ‘Break and reset the feet, perhaps’) not least, but bank managers, judges or politicians too - and sets out (sometimes literally) to create a new existence. To redefine himself. 

There’s a telling sequence from the enchanting Nurse Willison: ‘We all thought his stench was one of the symptoms. But he doesn’t stink at all. It’s just that no one gave him a wash.’ And her conclusion: ‘There’s a lot less wrong with you than those upstairs think.’ Herein the whole point: that of the play, the film, the original Joseph (‘I have been through hell’) is as much a normal human being as anyone else.

When the nurse goes further, by – quite quickly, such is her skill and his acumen - getting him talking, the flow is astounding, and its contribution to our empathy with him, thanks to the outstanding script, is vast: ‘You can rely on my discretion’; ‘I do not know if I have been mad or sane’; ‘This is one of the things I have in abundance’; ‘After a fashion…’.  ‘Epitome’; ‘antithesis’; ‘symbiosis’, ‘celestial’. Is there no limit to this man’s marvellous command of English? Or his conceptual command: ‘Do you think it is possible to be both human and something else?’

‘The honour is mine, Miss Fordham’ (Rose Wardlaw); ‘I am in your hands’; ‘I am plastic, Mrs. Highfield’ (Daneka Etchells)… I have no real shape.’ Plus he watches, listens, attends: intensely. Comprehends. He is the perfect pupil.

Utterly self-aware. ‘I am not some crustacean that can move from shell to shell. I am myself.’ ‘My body is not predictable; tomorrow it may become something else’. And a nice one: ‘I have spent many a tedious hour onstage’. I wonder how many of today’s or yesterday’s actors have felt that, on the touring circuit, six performances a week, sometimes for a pittance.

And perhaps it’s when he becomes enraptured: when his whole face and body language exudes joy, that we are able to relish Merrick above all. His childlike excitement at some intellectual discovery is where Zak Ford-Williams in this stupendous stage display gives us pure enchantment and uplift. I haven’t seen a tour-de-force like his here even on Britain’s greatest stages. What a find he is.   

Roderic Dunnett


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