You hear him first. The wheezing. The rasping. A salivary sound; like Darth Vader gargling, wet and incessant. It burrows into you – it’s impossible to tune out.
Ushered into the room by a nurse in a high-necked dress, the audience are asked not to let their faces betray their emotions, to mask any terror or disgust they might feel.
A bright white cube stands at the centre of the stage through the translucent skin of which a contorted shadow can be seen, hunched over, head down. Here we have the source of this unnerving respiratory rattle: Joseph Merrick, resident of the London Hospital, a long-term patient of Dr Frederick Treves – and our host.
Benoit Hattet, as is often the case with stage adaptations of Merrick’s life story, plays the part without prosthetics of any kind, using his body to suggest the extent of the man’s deformities. One arm hangs heavy at his side, one leg is awkwardly twisted, and the heel of his bare foot never touches the ground. He’s Verbal Kint with a dove grey suit and a melancholy gentlemanly air, his lip curled, his eraser head cocked to one side, his every utterance requiring considerable effort. It’s an incredible feat of physicality; without entirely pretzeling his body, Hattet conveys the mess of Merrick’s physical condition. There are times when it is almost uncomfortable to watch and his bubbling breath – which he maintains throughout – is particularly difficult to listen to. When he finally uncoils at the end, it’s hard not to feel your own shoulders un-tense in sympathy.
The relationship between Merrick and Isabelle Bouvrain, as his nurse, is a necessarily complex one: she is part carer, part keeper. She invites the audience to watch Merrick, to stare, to drink their fill, but then sets out the terms for their doing so; she is positively maternal at moments, tender and soft-eyed, but more often than not she is stern, a chilly school mistress, correcting his speech and gently chastising him for alarming the ladies in the audience. On one hand she is inattentive – neglecting to hand him his teacup in a way that he can usefully drink from it – but then she readies herself to give him one of his several daily baths, an act of incredible intimacy.
Merrick spent so much of his life on display; having escaped the workhouse by joining a travelling show and inviting the public to gawp for a price, he was then the subject of medical examination and scrutiny, his body forever being prodded and measured and assessed. The Lynchian light box of a set – a sterile, white space, harshly strip-lit and furnished with a spindly metal cot – ensures that Merrick’s status as an exhibit is never in doubt; well over a century after his death at the age of 27, he remains an object of fascination; this play is of course part of that process, and it is not even the only Elephant Man at this year’s Fringe.
While the production contains a good deal of biographical detail (though admittedly nothing that couldn’t be cribbed from Wikipedia) – including the golden moment where Merrick’s dream of being able to visit the theatre at Drury Lane comes true – the writing is in many ways secondary to Hattet’s act of bodily transformation and the way the piece as a whole acts as a meditation on repulsion, attraction, and the delicate interplay between the two: the twin urges to look and to look away.