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Review: The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man

★★★★

The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man shares the tale of Joseph Merrick; a fatally deformed man considered mentally impaired to everyone, except Joseph himself, proving as his greatest challenge of all. While Joseph is forever reminded of his supposed unfortunate reality, he continues to live in his somewhat imaginary state. And with such a perception seen as almost philosophical, we are questioned with this: where does existence truly lie?

The storyline – surrounding the true elephant-like deformities of Joseph Merrick during the 1860s –  questions themes of humanity so crucial, novelists and scriptures felt recreations essential, time and time again in many forms and fashions. Even the surrealist filmmaker David Lynch felt compelled to create a masterpiece which starred Bowie in later years. The Malthouse’s take from Matthew Lutton and playwright Tom Wright however, focuses not solely on Joseph’s distortions handed to him at birth, but more his internal battles within to rise against them, highlighting faithfulness, honesty and above all, courage.
 
Almost half of the play is performed behind a mesh covering with heavy pockets of smoke blowing dramatically onto the stage as the actors perform. Possibly, this could mirror how others hazily view Joseph at this time with their unwillingness to see him truly. It’s also important to note that all performers (except Daniel Monk as Joseph) are female and bounce between characters, genders and identities throughout. The play also welcomes two disabled performers including the leading role. We are, as audience members, prompted to take value from character content rather than the physical, which is exactly what Joseph seeks to affirm.
 
A scene of an optimistic, giggly Joseph marks the beginning of the performance as he listens joyfully to his mother sharing the tale of his birth. She unveils that during her pregnancy an elephant almost crushed her completely, missing by an inch. Could this suggest an almost mystical, inhumane creature that is Joseph, and propose this rendition as fable-like also? We’re never to be certain, although the morals brought to question suggest it’s certainly likely. Joseph’s mother continues to share and they both enjoy the interaction, although upon seeing a happy, vulnerable Joseph, she’s quick to elicit disappointment in her son, reminding him he’s not like other boys.
 
Soon after, his mother passes, and Joseph, a boy who views himself as ‘the most extraordinary thing in this massive city’, is passed onto a cruel world and undeserving characters. A freak, animal, ape or most regularly elephant are small examples of how the world receives him and in turn, he becomes weak. Then comes a saviour offering asylum at the London Hospital; a blessing so Joseph thought. Sadly, he only finds himself further trapped in a world of ignorant beings.
 
During his hospital stay and up until, Joseph performs barely clothed and speaks almost nothing after his mothers passing. Yet as we witness Joseph grow increasingly fed-up, and more able, he lashes out at his carer who has been incorrectly addressing him for too long. Joseph’s first break is unveiled. We’re soon witness to a fully, and smartly, clothed Joseph who’s gained the confidence to denounce long-time assumptions, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” he proclaims. Similar instances follow until Joseph finally breaks free. Free from the institution, free from assumptions, and free to exist in his imaginary state which we find ultimately, isn’t really imaginary at all.
 
“I am happy every hour of the day,” Joseph says. “My life is full because I know I am loved.”
The Malthouse’s rendition of The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man challenges perceptions, questions good faith and raises philosophical ideals as to where existence truly lies – and matters. It is made known, through character selection, stage setting and a truthful storyline, that whether you choose to live in your real or imagined state, not one can denote which is right, wrong, real or imagined.