The Elephant Man
Bristol Old Vic
The story of Joseph Merrick
‘Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams’
Actor Jamie Beddard, who plays disfigured Joseph Merrick until Saturday, July 7, in Bristol Old Vic’s production of The Elephant Man offers a performance tour-de-force.
Beddard, born with cerebral palsy, leads a 10-strong cast through the brief adult life of the man, abandoned to a workhouse who joined a travelling freak show as half-elephant, half-man in mid-19th Century Britain.
I once saw Merrick’s bones in the London Hospital and was moved by how incomprehensible his life must have been for this sensitive, intelligent man who shielded himself with a cloak and veil from others cruel and fascinated stares.
Bernard Pomerance’s moving play highlights how it is the gaze of others defines us and also acts as a mirror to our lives.
As Merrick made circus-onlookers scream, he drew the attention of London Hospital surgeon, Frederick Treves (ably played by Alex Wilson), who took him to live in the hospital where he received numerous wealthy and royal visitors.
They bought him silver-tipped canes, ivory toothbrush and their own prying, upmarket eyes. Merrick’s pitiable affliction brought in enough money from kind-hearted donations to ensure his care for life - and a boost to hospital coffers.
Beddard brings out the difficulties of Merrick being thankful for the care he received and frightened of its removal but also of living by other’s rules just because they deem it good for him. Rules are there to make him happy – and other people’s lives easier.
It’s a thoughtful, philosophical play that makes the audience (another voyeur) think about disability and ability. Not only physically but psychologically. Merrick allowed other people to show their vulnerabilities to him and that was an intriguing.
Director Lee Lyford added: “This is a play I wanted to do for some time. In many ways the world has become less tolerant and accepting, and The Elephant Man is about how we de-humanise people that are not like ‘us’ (whatever that means).”
By the age of two, in 1864, tumours began to grow all over Merrick’s body. His mother’s death and unbearable poverty forced him to enter a Leicester workhouse and by 20 he’d joined the circus, until robbed and abandoned in London.
Merrick died aged 28, and his bones were bleached and mounted at The London Hospital. His story was globally recognised in David Lynch's award-winning film starring John Hurt.
The annual BOV and BOVTS (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School) co-production is a three-way collaboration with BOV’s new associate company Diverse City to create a new, professionally integrated production. Jamie Beddard is Diverse City’s co-artistic director.
Beddard is joined by a cast of theatre school graduates: Stephanie Booth (Countess), Micky Dartford (Ross), Max Dinnen (Bishop Walsham How), Gerald Gyimah (Carr Gomm), Grainne O’ Mahony (Mrs Kendal), Madeleine Schofield (Duchess), Charlie Suff (Snork), Liyah Summers (Princess Alexandra) and Alex Wilson (Frederick Treves).
For more information contact the Box Office on 0117 987 7877 or go towww.bristololdvic.org
Tickets cost from £7.50 and the play lasts an hour and 45 minutes with a 20 minute break. Suitable for age 14+.
PREVIEW: The Elephant Man is set to be on stage at the Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, July 7, with a 10-strong cast, led by Jamie Beddard as disfigured Joseph Merrick.
I once saw Merrick’s bones in the London Hospital and was incredibly moved by how incomprehensibly difficult life must have been for this sensitive man in an age when to be different was to be pointed at and ridiculed.
Disabled actor Jamie Beddard plays Merrick in this bold, new production of Bernard Pomerance’s moving play which highlights views of disability and difference, in the past and present.
Jamie said: “This is a really exciting opportunity and hopefully, by working with someone like me, it will normalise inclusion and approaches to casting. Merrick is a really iconic part for a disabled performer.”
Director Lee Lyford said: “This is a play I wanted to do for some time. In many ways the world has become less tolerant and accepting, and ‘The Elephant Man’ is about how we de-humanise people that are not like ‘us’ (whatever that means).”
Merrick was born in 1862 and at the age of two tumours began to grow all over his body. Both his mother’s death and poverty forced him to enter a Leicester workhouse and desperate to leave, in 1884 he joined an act called ‘the Elephant Man, Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant’.
It was sordid spectacle of a travelling freak show, moving from city to city and mercilessly putting Merick on display to the horrified delight of Victorian audiences.
It was based on an old folk tale that his appearance was due to his mother being frightened by an elephant during pregnancy.
Merrick, who covered himself in a cape and veil, as a shield from cruel looks, came to the attention of a number of surgeons, including Frederick Treves, who took him to live at the London Hospital where he received numerous visitors, attended the theatre and went on trips.
Merrick died aged 28, and Treves made casts to of Merrick's body and his bones were bleached and mounted at The London Hospital. His story was globally recognised in David Lynch's award-winning film starring John Hurt.
The Elephant Man runs from Tuesday to Saturday, June 26-July 7.
Jamie Beddard as Joseph Merrick is joined by a cast of theatre school graduates: Stephanie Booth (Countess), Micky Dartford (Ross), Max Dinnen (Bishop Walsham How), Gerald Gyimah (Carr Gomm), Grainne O’ Mahony (Mrs Kendal),Madeleine Schofield (Duchess), Charlie Suff (Snork), Liyah Summers (Princess Alexandra) and Alex Wilson (Frederick Treves).
Tickets from £7.50 and the play lasts 1hour 45 minutes with a 20-minute break.
Suitable for age 14+
Directed by David Lynch the award winning film released in October 1980 starred Anthony Hopkins as Dr Frederic Treves and John Hurt at Joseph Merrick