In taking on a role in that is clearly a labour of love, Bradley Cooper faces the daunting dual challenges of shedding his own Hollywood sheen and escaping the shadow of an iconic performance. If he succeeds rather more at the former than the latter, this is less a criticism of Cooper’s performance than a recognition that it is hard to think of the ‘Elephant Man’ without calling to mind John Hurt’s superlative cinematic interpretation in David Lynch’s film.
The film was realeased only a short time after Bernard Pomerance’s play was written, though it’s an entirely separate entity. Following a successful run on Broadway, Scott Ellis’ revival transfers to the West End with its big name US cast intact. Alongside Cooper it astars Alessandro Nivolo and Patricia Clarkson, who along with Cooper was also Tony-nominated for her role. It’s a moving and often very funny production but despite being grounded by a trio of strong central performances, it never quite lives up to its own good intentions.
Eschewing any kind of make up for what must be gruelling physical contortions, Cooper – as John Merrick – paints a sympathetic rather than pitiable figure, blessed with a probing intelligence but also sense of humour that verges on the sly. He’s a man who, despite his naiveté and social inexperience, is smart enough to see through others’ façade, to pierce the small hypocrisies that grease the wheels of polite society.
Creating a genuine connection and tenderness with this damaged individual, Patricia Clarkson plays the actress Mrs Kendal. Her performance is a dry delight, wryly aware of the fact that, like Merrick, as an actress – and, indeed, as a woman – she is judged on her outward appearance, and they both play a part that is as much about perception as reality. An elegant, nuanced performer, Clarkson manages to avoid the potential mawkishness of such a relationship, making their blossoming friendship a thing of fragile beauty.
As Dr Frederick Treves, Alessandro Nivola captures the self-satisfaction of a young man on whom the sun has always shone (a well-off Englishman in the age of Empire, a scientist at a time of science) but whose experience with Merrick exposes the limitations of his own vision (despite procuring female company for Merrick as a ‘civilising’ influence, he retains the judgementalism of his era with regards to both feminine sexuality and propriety, and the ‘proper’ limits of Merrick’s interest in women). His unravelling is less convincing, though one senses this is a weakness of the writing rather than his performance: we never get far enough beyond the superficialities of his character to understand how easily his foundations of self are shaken.
In fact, the strength of the performances often illuminate the shortcomings of the material. It may be well-meaning, but it’s not subtle – there’s a whole scene clearly establishing that Merrick is, to some extent, being used by his supporters as a mirror to their own beliefs, reflecting how they see themselves, but lest we somehow fail to grasp this, we have to have Treves explicitly spell it out for us again. There’s little nuance to the characterisation beyond the leading trio and the play is overly keen on creating a hissable villain: Anthony Heald is straight out of My Fair Lady by way of a Victorian panto as the boozy barker who toured with Merrick as a fairground attraction and seeks to profit from his new-found fame. This is further exacerbated by the fact that director Ellis seems to think that the best way to recreate English historical accuracy is to encourage his cast in a kind of stiff-upper-lipness that makes the performances seem unnecessarily mannered. Nor is it helped by Timothy R Mackabee’s design, which is on the one hand pleasingly sparse, but also over-reliant on a distracting amount of swishing on and off of curtains.
The production does skilfully manage to treat a sad and serious topic with the minimum of sentimentality, wringing a surprising amount of humour from the story, laced with smart lines and a bracing scepticism: it recognises that the same people happy to fund Merrick’s stay at the London Hospital aren’t that far removed from the mob who was willing to tear him apart at Liverpool Street Station. But the play never explores the surely crucial factor of his youth – Merrick was in his early 20s when Treves brought him to the hospital, and a mere 27 when he died – and even in its attempt to portray him as a person rather than a spectacle, it can’t quite avoid falling into its own trap of garnishing a myth rather than revealing a man.