Elephant Man on show in Adamstown

The title character in The Elephant Man is based on a real-life person who was born with hideous deformities. But writer Bernard Pomerance calls for him to be performed without prosthetics or elaborate make-up.
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And that, as actor Timothy Blundell notes, is a challenge for the person playing John Merrick.

Blundell is cast as Merrick in a production of The Elephant Man that will be the first community work staged in the new 577-seat The Factory theatre at Adamstown’s St Pius X High School from September 7 to 15.

Merrick’s deformities, which are described by a surgeon early in the play, included an enormous head with a bony jutting forehead that almost hid one eye and a nose that was a lump of flesh. His right arm and legs were enormous and shapeless and as a child he suffered a hip disease that forced him to walk with a stick.

Amazingly, his left arm was perfectly formed.

Merrick, who was born in England in 1862, was christened Joseph but has come to be known as John. He became a carnival freak at an early age and was exhibited under the name the Elephant Man.

He was studied by a sympathetic surgeon, Frederick Treves, and lived the last years of his life in a London hospital, where he became a celebrity, with visitors who came to meet him including Alexandra, Princess of Wales. He died in 1890, aged 27.

Research still continues into the cause of his horrendous deformities.

Timothy Blundell, who has extensively researched Merrick to help him play the role, says it is important to play him without make-up because the records show there was a normal, clear-thinking person beneath the ugly exterior.

At the same time, he has to suggest Merrick’s deformities through his movements – but given those deformities his body movements are limited.

“The only parts I can use are my left arm and movements to the head,” he says. “Merrick also had a speech impediment, so that also makes it a bit harder.”

While the role is the most difficult he has played in physical terms, Blundell also regards it as one of the most important.

“I want audiences to see the human being behind the ugliness of his deformities,” he says. “We shouldn’t judge people by the way they look, their religion or other such factors. If we can stop and learn more about them, we might come to appreciate, as this play shows, the people who are different from us.”

The Elephant Man won the year’s major best production awards, including a Tony, when it was staged on Broadway in 1979.

Director Don McEwen has assembled a first-rate cast, many of whom play multiple roles. The actors include Wayne Jarman as Frederick Treves, Susan McEwen as actress Mrs Kendal, who befriended Merrick, and Rod Ansell, Alan Bodenham, Sue Hart, Maddison Molenaar and Richard Thomas.

The Factory is one of two amphitheatre-style venues in a $5 million redevelopment of a former Lustre Hosiery factory in the St Pius school grounds. The smaller theatre holds 70 people.

The idea of including a major theatre in the redevelopment was put forward by McEwen, who was teaching a vocational education training course at St Pius. He served as a technical adviser for the theatre.

The Elephant Man has many settings but companies staging the show generally opt for an all-purpose stage design.

McEwen is using the colourful backdrop of a circus tent. It symbolises the world Merrick grew up in, but which he put very much behind him in the productive last years of his life.

* The Elephant Man, an Adenau and 5 Minute Call production, can be seen at The Factory on Friday and Saturday at 8pm, from September 7 to 15, plus an 8pm performance on Wednesday, September 12, and a 2pm matinee on Saturday, September 15. Tickets: $38; concession $34; child/student $28. Bookings: Civic Ticketek, 49291977.The Factory is at the rear of the St Pius X buildings. There is a car park adjoining the venue. The entrance to the grounds is through a gate on Park Avenue near the street’s crossing of the former Belmont railway branch line that is now part of the Fernleigh Track.

THE ELEPHANT MAN: Will be performed without any prosthetics. Picture: Brock Perks