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On Tuesday to Thursday Week 6 Lancaster University Theatre Group are performing The Elephant Man at the Nuffield Theatre. I sat down with Director Luke McDonnell, and Actor Callum Berridge, who the plays the eponymous Elephant Man (real name John Merrick) to find out more.
How have rehearsals been going so far?
Luke: It’s going very well – it’s quite a short play so it’s quite easy to knock through a lot of it quite quickly.
Callum: Very hectic short rehearsal period – very glad that it’s a short play.
So the rehearsals have been quite intense?
Luke: Not really actually, they’re quite relaxed. That might just be because I’m not very good [Laughs].
Tell me how the production came about.
Luke: I really wanted to propose another play, because I did it in 1st term and I really enjoyed it. So I started looking around loads of different plays that I wanted to propose. I thought about MacBeth or different Nick Payne pieces, and I just kept looking at The Elephant Man. I saw it was on at the West End last year, and that was when I first became more aware of the production. I really loved the story of it, and the character work, in particular the two leads of Treves and Merrick.
Callum: I think for me it’s that Merrick teaches Treves a lot about his own life, essentially. There are later stages in the play when there are certain lines that Treves echoes what Merrick has said earlier. Treves sees his own nature and personality being imposed on Merrick, and how that is transforming Merrick, but at the same time Merrick has a real effect on him. He starts to question the society that he lives in, this Victorian society that is obsessed with spectacle that is very ready to cast aside people who are different. He becomes quite sick of the world towards the end of the play, and it’s interesting to see that dynamic between them.
Do you see that as one of the central themes of the play that carries through to the modern day?
Luke: Absolutely. The idea of acceptance, and just how are things are perceived and accepted by various members of the society, especially in relation to Merrick. There’s a lot of ambiguity about certain people who Merrick thinks of as his friends, but the audience are aware that, that might not actually be the case.
Callum: The thing with the play that I found quite early on it’s not about The Elephant Man as such. He becomes this centre point that all the other characters orbit around. It’s actually about everything on the periphery – it’s about the society that he lives in, it’s about these individuals and their interactions with him, so it’s very much an ensemble led show.
The Elephant Man is such a well-known story, particularly outside theatre with the film, I was wondering whether that changes your attitude going into it? Are you conscious of the different interpretations there have been of this piece?
Luke: Kind of. I read it and I had this very strict mind-set in terms of the staging, and how I wanted it to look. Then as I did more and more research about the Merrick story and the various productions of it, I found none of the productions were how I saw it, and I found that really strange. They’re all quite similar in the aesthetic – and I didn’t picture any of that and I was like “shit have I done this wrong?” [Laughs] But it was all fine.
Callum: I think it’s helpful to get a firm idea in your head of what you want to do with it before you allow other influences to change that. I haven’t actually seen the film yet, I’m ashamed to say, but I bought the film just before we started and I’ve deliberately held off on watching it, because I didn’t want my characterisation to be influenced by John Hurt’s characterisation. I wanted to come to my own conclusion about the part before anything else influenced that.
How has your staging of the piece been different to the way it’s classically performed?
Luke: We’ve sort of taken a much more naturalistic approach to the staging than a lot of the other productions do – they’re often very minimalist, and having the actor floating through the space. Whereas we’ve set it down a lot more, and created the office and the bedroom. With such a short piece I didn’t want it to become fleeting. This way the audience can identify each thing very easily. Also, the play takes place over 5 and a half years, so the set builds as time goes on to aid the audience with how much time has passed.
How have you gone about creating the ‘look’ for John Merrick?
Luke: It was a big question for me when I was looking into the play, you know, how are we going to do that? But as I went through the script, you don’t need prosthetics at all. There’s a projection of Joseph Merrick on stage, when Treves is giving a lecture on him to the board of the hospital, and then the actor playing him comes out and contorts into the character. He becomes the character through the projection. It’s the only time the theatricality of it, and the separate world is broken as you see the actor becoming the character.
Callum: It is a really cool concept – it’s something you wouldn’t really see in film. It’s very much a theatrical concept. It’s also probably the most iconic scene from the play – I knew of that scene before I knew of any other scene in the play. The actor walks out and stands there in neutral and as Treves talks they contort themselves into the appearance of the Elephant Man.
It must be quite an exciting challenge from an actors point of view.
Callum: It’s one of the most exciting parts I’ve taken on in the years I’ve been with LUTG. It’s also the most challenging one, and it’s really painful. As the weeks have gone on, my back has been locking into the wrong kind of places [Laughs].
Talk me through the other characters in the piece
Luke: Well obviously there’s John Merrick, and his Doctor Treves (Jason Naylor). He’s quite young to be in the position he’s in, and at times because of his age other characters perceive him as naïve, and a bit too caring. Then there’s Ross (Chad Bunney) who’s the ex-manager of the Elephant Man Show within the circus, where Treves found him. Ross is an interesting character because of how openly he exploits Merrick. Which is a theme throughout really, characters exploiting not just Merrick but exploiting each other for their own means; whereas Ross is the most open about it. He’s very morally ambiguous about it.
Then you’ve got Mrs. Kendall (Ellie Evans) who is an actress. Essentially Treves asks her to be Merrick’s friend as no women are willing to spend time with him. So he hires her feelings, but then she forms this very genuine real relationship with him, and they become real friends. Then there’s the various members of high society who are spending time with him, and the audience question their reasons for doing that. Finally there’s Gomm (Michael Dodds) who’s the head of the hospital. I’ve always seen Gomm as what Treves could potentially become. Gomm used to be very caring, whereas now he’s very detached and just sees the ‘science’.
Callum: I think Treves towards the end of the play gets pulled to breaking point, where he is so emotionally involved with Merrick as a patient that Merrick’s future will determine how Treves turns out. Whether he’s going to continue on as someone who is compassionate – not that Gomm isn’t compassionate, he is a compassionate Doctor, but he has an emotional detachment from his patients. Whereas Treves finds that he’s becoming attached and responsible for Merrick, and I think towards the end of the play you can see how he could go in either direction.
What have been the biggest challenge so far with putting on the piece?
Luke: The biggest challenge is the physicality. One with it being such a short piece and like Callum said, it’s so driven by these characters themselves, it was so important to get all the characterisation really nailed down. The whole of this last week we’ve doing a lot more character work, and getting the cast to really figure out what the characters are and why they’re important in the story.
Callum: The challenge of making me look right without becoming irreparable by the end.
Have you had any favourite moments so far?
Luke: [To Callum] Your drooling was interesting.
Callum: There was a rehearsal last week. One of the sources I use is this documentary about the Elephant Man win which a bunch of scientists analysed his skeleton and using different computer programmes and algorythms they managed to reconstruct what he would have walked like and how he would have sounded. One of the things they said, was that because of the growths in his soft pallet, and because of the tumours that grew across his face, he couldn’t really swallow that well. But in the role I kept swallowing, so I decided to try it without swallowing. I was just slobbering everywhere for the whole thing. There’s a very angry scene later in the play where Ross comes, and Merrick confront him and it obviously gets very heated. There’s a point where I’m shouting my words at him, and I was spraying all over the back of his head [Laughs].
Tickets are available through the Lancaster Arts website. For more information visit the LUTG Presents: The Elephant Man Facebook page.