Bradley Cooper becomes John Merrick in the current production of The Elephant Man.
Running for just 12 weeks at the Royal Theatre Haymarket in London, after a successful Broadway run, the crowds are flocking to see the Hollywood actor who does not disappoint in this serious role, despite potential scepticisms that may arise from his previous work, including comedy franchise The Hangover and action capers like The A Team and Limitless.
But this is on an altogether smaller scale in one of London’s grand and beautiful theatres. The stage is stark and simple, usually dressed with at most a pair of hospital curtains, a bed and a table. This makes the transition between scenes seamless and never too jarring, moving from a freak show to the clever use of a train to the hospital where Merrick spends the rest of his days.
Merrick was famed for a range of extreme physical deformities which rendered him unable to walk without a cane and really unable to live an everyday life. A stand out scene from the play has to be when the doctor, Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), reads out the long list alongside projections of the real Merrick and Cooper, standing up straight at the start of the scene, adjusts his body as the deformities are announced. Once locked into place, he holds the position for the entire rest of the play and the audience must imagine the things he cannot simulate, a task helped by Treves’ visual aid. This is an incredibly successful way of making clear to the audience the scale of these ailments and enable them to empathise a little when other characters react with such horror.
Cooper is gripping, telling the story of Merrick in often hard to watch ways from his frightened grunting, speech difficulties and raw crying. The emotion in every word he says despite the contorted lips is something in itself. Alongside him, Nivola is compelling, whether as the straight-laced English doctor or occasionally a lot stricter, and Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Kendal is simply radiant.
Despite superb acting throughout, the script is not quite as high quality. Although the first act successfully portrays Merrick’s journey from freak show to being cared for at the hospital, the second act contains less tension and the ending is rather abrupt, leaving more closure desired, despite one truly powerful scene in particular featuring Mrs Kendal.
Regardless, everyone should see The Elephant Man while they have a chance as it is a rare opportunity to see a real-life story with power and meaning as acted by a man who may end up being one of the actors of his generation. With his work moving towards the sincere and theatrical, Cooper is surely only going up.