BROADWAY VICTORIANA DOESN’T QUITE GET THERE
It was David Lynch’s 1980 film – monochrome, moody, with an unforgettable performance by John Hurt – which brought to modern awareness the story of Joseph, known as John, Merrick: a monstrously deformed young man rescued from a freak-show by Dr Frederick Treves of the London hospital in 1884. The film, drawing on Treves’ memoirs and medical photographs of the day, used horrifying prostheses within which Hurt created the gentle, romantic, intelligent bible-reading character of Merrick. Lynch’s achievement, unveiling the terrible head only late on, was to make us more repelled by the rubbernecking cruelty of the crowds than by the deformity.
But this is the 1970’s play by Bernard Pomerance. Scott Ellis’ production is transplanted whole from a Broadway success, set with bare artistry on hospital floorboards and matchboarding, and done without prostheses. Bradley Cooper is first seen as himself: fit, buff, six-packed: as Alessandro Nivola’s Treves displays archive photographs and reads the medical report – “immense head…sacklike flesh..repulsive cauliflower growths, fungus, stench” etc, Cooper distorts himself limb by limb: his movement discipline throughout is faultless, even managing to look as if his head, like Merrick’s, is too heavy. He remains crooked for the rest of the play.
As a device that is effective enough. ; the sly showman taking money before a fairground screen stresses the humiliation, and in hospital – different screens, in a neat parallel – the reactions of the first outsiders (shrieking “Oh my God in heaven!” or “Indecent” in improbable accents) help too.
Treves recruits an actress, Mrs Kendall (finely and sensitively, if somewhat slowly, played by Patricia Clarkson) since she is trained to hide her feelings. She visits Merrick, and by the end of the interval he is a social lion, visited by Royalty and aristocracy and plied with silver-backed hairbrushes which he clearly cannot use. His physical condition declines to death while Treves, for reasons only sketchily achieved in the clunking script, has a verbose and tedious nervous breakdown.
I wanted very much to like it: a fascinating story, a Hollywood A-lister and Broadway cast, programmes a tenner, stalls tickets up to £ 100 `(cheaper upstairs and just as good a view btw): event theatre, this, and a palpable sincerity in Cooper’s pride in bringing Merrick’s memory back to London.
But it’s not a good play. Sketchy, plodding, and repetitively determined to drive home its point – that he is being whored to the social set as much as to the fairground punters, and that all the characters who praise him just want reassurance of their own goodness-within-metaphoricall-deformity. In two hours including interval, it still dragged. The only credible relationship is between Merrick and Mrs Kendall, notably when he wistfully says he has never seen a lady naked (only pox-ridden fairground doxies) so with a nimbleness barely credible in the age of corsets she shows him her breasts. That is actually touching.
I can’t not mention the awful speech problem: struggling with Pomerance’s cod-1880s phrases most of the cast sound like beta-minus graduates of a crash Berlitz course in Let’s Speak Victorian. They talk slowly, in worryingly improbable accents with unaccountable flat pauses. Cooper himself has to keep up a strong speech impediment, and does it (like the physical work) with admirably sensitive skill and modesty. But for some reason he is given, despite a workhouse upbringing, a posh and orotund English accent. So he does, at times, sound like a rather drunk 1950’s Etonian. Conviction wavers, more than he deserves.