Review: Elephant Man (Fourth Monkey Ensemble)

 Cheltenham Everyman Studio

“Those eyes… they tell a greater story than those men ever could.”

In the Fourth Monkey Ensemble’s production of Elephant Man, the tragic tale of Joseph Merrick is retold by Steve Green in an intimate and intense theatre setting.

A lone cage greets the audience; a large rusting metal frame, upon which hang white curtains on its four sides, forming an enclosure around the groaning, slurping, misshapen figure of Merrick. The design that has gone into Merrick’s malformed shape relies not on make-up or prosthetics, but on a sculpted costume created by Anastasia Sarajeva. Thick wire forms a cage around his head and torso, while chain mail drapes over his shoulders, around his waist and gloving his right hand and arm.

Joseph Merrick is portrayed by Daniel Chrisostomou who gives a magnificent performance; contorting his body and facial expression, every movement and reaction showing his vulnerability. The many moments of inhumanity directed towards him evokes great sympathy from the audience. The distorted vocal noises of the elephant man do not hinder his verbal communication, in fact all of Chrisostomou’s speech as Merrick is delivered with great clarity. This symbolic design of his grotesque form shows the trapped figure inside; as described by the other characters, his eyes peer out from beneath the abnormal shape of his skull, and so peering through the wire cage that resembles his illustrated appearance.

While the other members of the cast: Adam Trussell, Ami Sayers and Katie Turner are multi-rolling; Scott McGarrick solely plays Frederick Treves. This keeps a desirable consistency in the relationship between both actors and characters, and McGarrick is tremendously expressive in voice and gesture; the excitement and enthusiasm of Treves adds to the contrast between him and the extreme tension in Merrick’s body and movement.

The cage-like structure within which Merrick is first encountered intrigues the audience with Zahra Mansouri’s versatile design; each scene change requires the actors to manoeuvre the frame to a different point in the performance space, and the frame itself can be unhinged to represent new settings and scenery, with the curtains able to be open or drawn. Stu Sibley’s sound design is complimentary to each and every setting, and even the scene changes themselves! There were a couple of scenes when certain characters address the audience as their spectators, whether presenting to the curious Victorian British public or members of London’s Pathological Society. To give an example of this, at the start of the play Tom Norman, played by Adam Trussell, greets his ‘business partner’ inside the cage before the scene transforms into the Elephant Man spectacle; the curtains open and Merrick is stripped of his robe for Norman to invite his audience to take a look. The scene then reverts to backstage after the show; the change in lighting and Trussell’s rebuilding of the fourth wall being all that is required to fluidly move the story along.

Green’s approach to the story of the elephant man focuses on compassion for the human imprisoned within a cage, the fear of those who cannot comprehend and the perception of those who want to enliven Merrick’s humanity. The Fourth Monkey Ensemble’s production of Elephant Man was written and directed by Steve Green, and is currently touring the UK until March 2015.

TJM

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