The story of the Elephant Man is a sad and tragic tale. I can still remember the first time I saw the absolutely brilliant 1980 Davis Lynch movie, and the tale of Joseph Merrick and his friendship with Dr Frederick Treves has stayed with me forever. It is a true story of kindness, pain, and humanity.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story (which is based on Treves’ first-hand account published in 1923 titled The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences), it takes place during 19th century Victorian England. In Whitechapel, East London, Surgeon Treves stumbles upon a man afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease (Joseph Merrick) who has been mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Treves rescues Merrick and re-homes him at the Royal London Hospital. There, he discovers that behind Merrick’s ‘monstrous’ facade is a person of extreme intelligence, sensitivity, and romantic nature. With the kind help of Treves, Merrick attempts to regain the dignity he lost after years spent as a side-show freak. If you haven’t already, I urge you to check out Lynch’s film, which stars Anthony Hopkins as Treves, with a literally unrecognisable John Hurt as Merrick.
Merrick’s story touched many people, sometimes changing their lives in profound ways. One such person was Bradley Cooper. I was watching an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio which featured the actor, and he was asked (by host James Lipton) who or what had inspired him to pursue a career in acting. He recounted the story of how he saw the David Lynch film at the age of 12, sitting on a red couch in the living room, sobbing and touched – even at that age – with the dignity and humanity of Joseph Merrick. It was at this point he knew he wanted to be an actor...
Fast forward to this point and Cooper’s career has been pretty impressive. His breakthrough was, of course, as smooth-talking Phil in The Hangover. From there he has gone on to become a major Hollywood A-lister, starring with the likes of Robert De Niro, Christian Bale, and Liam Neeson. Oh, and he also has an amazing THREE Academy Award acting nominations under his belt (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper) – also becoming the first actor in 13 years to receive three back-to-back nominations! (In case you’re wondering, the last was Russell Crowe’s triple whammy for The Insider, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind). It’s a huge achievement for any actor, especially one whose rise to prestige has been so fast and as surprising as Cooper’s. The man is talented, and is eager to show a range beyond being “that guy from The Hangover.”
So onto The Elephant Man then. I first heard that Bradley Cooper was bringing the story to Broadway earlier this year. He would be portraying Merrick sans make-up – instead relying on altering his posture and contorting his face to convey Merrick’s deformities. (David Bowie adopted a similar technique during his stage portrayal as Merrick in 1980). Oh how envious I was of those New Yorkers who were able to sample Cooper’s acting delights first-hand! As a consolation, my ever faithful ‘Nien Nunb’ treated me to a visit to the Royal London Hospital – yes the very same hospital in which Merrick resided at the request of Treves. They have a small museum dedicated to Treves and Merrick, with some fantastic items on display, including a full-size skeleton moulded straight from Merrick’s actual bones (the actual skeleton resides in the hospital’s archives).
Also on display is Merrick’s trademark cap and veil which he used to hide his deformity from the Victorian public, a card model church he built, and the only surviving letter handwritten by Merrick himself.
I picked up a copy of Treves’ The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences book to read on the way home, thoroughly enjoying my visit. The next day, I was greeted with an amazing announcement on the news: Bradley Cooper would be bringing his Elephant Man production to London!! The play would be shown for a strictly limited run of 12 weeks at the Theatre Royal Haymarket London! Needless to say, I suddenly developed an Elephant Man-style deformity in both hands as I frantically scrambled to the laptop and pounded on the keyboard in an attempt to secure some tickets as soon as I bloody could! What followed next was a vague slurry of words emitting from my mouth that probably sounded like a very disgruntled Joseph Merrick. First showing: Sold Out. “Oh &£!@*!!” Second showing: Sold Out. “Oh you £&*”*$@!!” Third Showing: Sold Ou... well you get the idea. And so it went. Until... Seats Available! Ok but where? Back row behind a pillar I expect. I rub my eyes in disbelief. Front Row and Centre!! I quickly mash my fingers on the mouse to select four tickets. A quick text to my good friends ‘Boltok’ and his wife ‘Mrs Lovett’ who will be accompanying Nien Nunb and yours truly, and we’re all set! Woo hoo!
Our big day draws closer. The Broadway run has ended, and to absolutely rave reviews. The critics are universally applauding Cooper’s magnificent performance and his dedication to such a physically and mentally demanding role. I also learn that a couple of the other actors are well-known faces too. Playing Mrs Kendal is Patricia Clarkson who appeared in the brilliant TV series Six Feet Under as well as movies such as Shutter Island, The Untouchables, and The Green Mile. Also appearing are Alessandro Nivola (Face/Off, Jurassic Park 3, American Hustle) as Frederick Treves, and in multiple roles Anthony Heald (most famous for playing Dr Chilton in The Silence Of The Lambs and Red Dragon).
This is all shaping up to be quite a performance! There’s also the possibility of an added bonus – reports from New York suggest that Bradley Cooper regularly greets fans at the stage door after each performance, posing for selfies and signing autographs. Hopefully this trend will continue during his London run! So we all head down to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, eagerly anticipating the afternoon’s show.
After purchasing the obligatory programme – a beautifully glossy, large and full colour number – we head to the lavish theatre bar for a glass of wine before heading in to the auditorium to find our seats: Row A, sitting 3 foot from the stage. We’ll literally be in the direct line of fire of Bradley Cooper’s phlegm when he starts to contort his mouth and spout his Elephant Man dialogue – surely our seats should come with a SeaWorld-style “Warning: you may get wet” sign on them! Before long, the lights dim, the curtain draws open, and the magical performance begins...
Oh and what a performance! Bradley Cooper is simply magnificent. Actually, the entire cast is magnificent. The show begins with Treves (Alessandro Nivola) discovering Merrick (Cooper, of course!) in his seedy street freak show. Cooper remains hidden beneath a long cloak, wearing Merrick’s hat and head shroud. He stumbles around stage, his legs buckling and twisting with each step he takes. Then shortly, we get to see the full effect of his performance. Treves presents Merrick to his fellow surgeon colleagues, explaining his physical deformities – in this case, addressing the theatre audience directly. And there Cooper stands, wearing nothing but a pair of scraggy looking cream shorts. Between the two actors is a large image of the real Joseph Merrick, which enables the audience to visualise and aid Cooper’s transformation despite his lack of prosthetics or make-up. And then the magic happens. As Treves discusses Merrick’s deformities, starting with his head and working his way down Merrick’s body, Cooper starts his transformation before our very eyes. His mouth twists and contorts to the side, and he adopts a surreal vacant stare. He cranes his neck into a very odd and uncomfortable looking position. He hunches one shoulder up, and twists the fingers of his right hand into the most unnatural looking shape I have ever seen, his fingers overlapping each other to form a representation of Merrick’s own right hand. Cooper then adjusts his stance and then, with the aid of a walking stick, starts to hobble around the stage whilst making strange slurping sounds as he breathes. The transformation is simply staggering.
And he manages to sustain this level of body distortion throughout the entire performance, even while his character is simply in the background. Every now and then I can see Cooper must be suffering from discomfort as he allows himself to re-adjust his mouth very briefly. I particularly remember him focusing directly on me - one of his techniques must evidently be to try and focus on one focal point in order to maintain his demented look! During the intermission, we excitedly discuss what we’ve seen so far, and the remarkable fact that it’s so hard to believe that it’s actually Bradley Cooper up there on stage, as he is so unrecognisable despite the fact that he is acting in plain sight – an invisible disguise, now that’s an achievement!
The whole play is absolutely engrossing. The acting is superb, and although the stage is sparse for the most part, the mood and atmosphere generated through the sheer performances is utterly engaging. The 2 hours flies by, and before we know it the lights dim and the curtains close. Cooper and co then appear for their obligatory bows, and the theatre audience treats them to a prolonged standing ovation, erupting in whoops and cheers. Cooper is taking his bow standing directly in front of me, and a give him a ‘thumbs up’ to which he can’t resist a smile at me. When the cast disappear into the wings, me and my small geek entourage head for the exit and make our way to the stage door outside.
They’ve set up barriers and there’s already a small crowd assembled to greet Bradley and the cast members as they exit the theatre. Planted firmly on the front of the barrier, cameras in hand and programmes and sharpies at the ready, we wait. First out is Anthony Heald. After stopping to sign for a few lucky fans (including me!) he heads straight towards the main street, but Boltok and Mrs Lovett manage to nab him for a photo op before he can disappear. He’s the friendliest and humble man you could hope to meet, and a complete opposite to his sinister Silence Of The Lambs persona.
Next out is Alessandro Nivola. He works his way around the crowd, mingling and chatting. He’s more than happy to pose for photos for myself and Boltok.
Then the crowd suddenly bursts into applause as Bradley Cooper himself arrives. He quickly works his way around, scribbling his autograph on programmes. It’s great to see that although he’s a so-called big Hollywood hotshot with Oscar nominations aplenty, he is still humble enough to take time out for his fans.
He then gives us all a wave and then ducks into an awaiting Mercedes. We’re sadly informed that Patricia Clarkson won’t be leaving the theatre (there was another performance scheduled that evening) so the crowd ambles off. I’m happy with my brand new shiny Bradley Cooper autographs, but it would be fun to come down again for a photo opportunity – so I do exactly that the following week! Ah, the joys of living in London! I make my way down to the Theatre Royal Haymarket once again after an evening performance, and again catch the absolutely lovely Anthony Heald for an autograph and a selfie. Bradley Cooper once again greets the crowd, wearing a baseball cap this time. He works his way around, stopping to smile for me as I take his picture, and also a quick selfie with him too!
All in all the whole Elephant Man experience has been excellent. Once again, I truly urge you to read the short book The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves, and watch the 1980 David Lynch movie starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. It is hard not to be affected by the tale of Joseph Merrick. As Treves recounts upon seeing him for the first time, “I pray to god that he’s an idiot.” Sadly he is everything but…