By Travis Johnson


The story of Joseph Merrick, the radically deformed man who, in 19th century England, became known as the Elephant Man, is a famous one. It has been told in numerous forms over the years, notably in the memoirs of his physician, Frederick Treves, and in the 1980 film, The Elephant Man, by David Lynch where Merrick, renamed “John”, was played by John Hurt.

You might wonder if his story merited another go ’round, but theatre director Matthew Lutton, together with writer Tom Wright, have a knack for finding unique angles from which to view existing texts. Their recent stage adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock was well received by critics and audiences alike, and their latest work, The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, looks set to do the same, by the simple choice to tell the story, from birth to death, from Merrick’s own unique point of view.

What was the genesis of this project, and what was it about Merrick that made you want to try and retell his story?

It was curiosity about Joseph Merrick that started the project and, as the title suggests, that curiosity led us to talk about what is the myth and what is true, and how those two things get tangled up. I think we know the famous parts of the story, like we know quite well his exhibition in a freak show, we know about the train station where he was found, we know about the incidents where the actor visited him in the hospital, but I think our interest was firstly to look at his whole life – to look at how his childhood influenced his own life and his parents, so it wasn’t just a portrait of his incarceration in the hospital. And also to really consider him a very contradictory and complex man, as opposed to the version that is written about in the various medical memoirs by Doctor Treves, which sort of romanticises him in many ways – he’s a figure of charity in the doctor’s journals, which is sort of the way that he’s often been portrayed in other forms.

So we wanted to look at the man that’s full of contradictions, and the way we do that is we make every scene in the show about him. It means that Doctor Treves isn’t present in the production at all – those other characters are absent and it’s entirely a poem or a series of scenes about him and his life, as opposed to the people who cared for him.

There is a tendency when dealing with figures like Merrick and, say, Rocky Dennis (Mask), to make them completely sympathetic and one-dimensional, to make them saintlike in their suffering. 

That’s right. I think that so often we actually other the person – they’re treated as an object to be othered. One of the scenes we have in the show is where an actress arrives and basically says ‘I need you to teach me what it means to be other’ and he sort of returns, saying ‘I can’t teach you to be anyone. I’m not here to inspire you and I’m not here to teach you, and I can’t tell you anything about yourself, all I can tell you about is me.’ And he talks about his own body.

But there’s this sense that sometimes Merrick has been held up as a saint or as someone trapped inside his own body, and how they are all perceptions of someone else talking about him – it’s not how he would talk about himself. This is really about a young man coming into his own, and a city and an institution that doesn’t know how to handle him coming into his own.

You’ve cast the disabled actor and filmmaker, Daniel Monks (Pulse), in the lead role. What does he bring to the production?

Daniel’s an incredibly charismatic performer, but he’s also a performer who has a lived experience of being disabled. Which means that he brings that to the performance and his insights into the character, but it also means that he is able to use his body in many ways to… he’s able to return the gaze, which is really exciting. He is a disabled person who gazes back at the audience, as opposed to in most other versions where it’s an able-bodied actor staring back at a mostly able-bodied audience, talking about the other. So it allows a very strong identification with Merrick to be present on stage.

Has Monks’ lived experience fed back into the script and the staging over the course of the rehearsal and pre-production period?

Yeah it has, particularly in the way that institutions and the idea of care works. Certainly the complexities of what it means to be, for example, in a hospital where you’re reliant on the care of others, and what that does emotionally. The idea that you might please others to receive that aid, and what happens when you’re aware of the power dynamic – when you’re aware that, at this point in time, there is need for care, and what your relationship is with those people is often very complex. There’s a scene written about that, where a patient that Merrick meets in the hospital talks about wearing a smile on his face all the time, even though he’s been unbearably unhappy, but knowing that that is the only way to survive in the institution.

So I think that Daniel brings a lot of insight into what it means to have your body treated like an object in many ways. People talk about his body, not about Daniel, and I think he brings that full understanding to the role of Merrick.

The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man is on at the Malthouse Theatre until August 27. 



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