Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Go to enough Fringes, and you see certain things time and time again. One such thing is a classic story enacted by a gang of attractive, terribly young performers, running through a series of tightly rehearsed movement sequences. Wait – don’t go. Roll Up, Roll Up – this version of the life of Joseph Merrick is original, involving, and likely to stay with you as you walk around the larger freak show of the Fringe.
Essentially, the script (by Steven Green – who also directs – and David Ledger) is simply the story of what happens to Merrick once he’s discovered by Frederick Treves in Victorian London. There’s not a significant amount of effort to place a deeper level of meaning on the narrative, save for that which is unavoidable (the people that leer at Merrick are more monstrous than the Elephant Man himself).
However, in this new version of the familiar tale, new spins are given: Treves (Grant Russell) is a significantly less sympathetic character than we’ve come to expect – in scenes where he argues with Merrick’s ‘owner’, and in the sequence where he first presents Merrick to the Medical society, it’s Treves that comes across as the arrogant Circus Barker. There’s also a dialogue about social reform and outmoded freak shows that would benefit from being developed further, but perhaps that’s for a different show – admittedly, a Fringe audience aren’t going to want to see the Elephant Man pushed to the background.
Merrick’s deformities are represented by a mask of copper wiring that curl around his head and arm. Not only does this neatly sidestep the shadow cast by the iconic make-up in the David Lynch film, it also begins to suggest that Merrick is the same inside. Only begins to, however, since this production wisely indicates that, because of the way he’s been treated by everyone in his life, Merrick absolutely is different: a victim on whom both nature and nature have decided to gang up on and bully relentlessly. He stands motionless on stage for ages at a time, somehow unnoticed by the audience simply because the other characters speak over him. But when he finally speaks, in Daniel Chrisostomou’s soft and gentle voice, the audience holds a collective breath to listen.
A quick gripe about the soundtrack – mostly, it’s terrible. We open on a bad synth: perhaps it’s meant to sound horrible, to represent the ugliness that Merrick finds himself in, but it just grates. Later, and far too often, crowd scenes, such as in lecture halls when the Elephant Man finds himself exhibited, are represented by a recording of cheers and jeers, which equally jars, particularly when you consider that there’s a very large and willing company who can do it live. Everything else about the show is uncomplicated and effective, sound FX like this aren’t really necessary.
However, that’s a small black mark against a very tight, effective production from a company gamely bringing old style rep theatre to the fringe (Elephant Man is one of six productions the company are performing this month), and who impress as a hardworking team that are very much worth your time.