The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance. Moonlight, directed by Jay Sullivan at ANU Arts Centre Drama Lab. March 15-25, 2006, 8pm.
I'm glad I never saw the David Lynch film, which seems to count the roles of John Merrick and Dr Frederick Treves as the star parts. In Moonlight's production, Matt Borneman certainly stands out as the Elephant Man and Justin Davidson does a competent job as Dr Treves.
But the star is clearly Rachael Teding van Berkhout as Miss Kendal. The historical actress was Mrs (later Dame Madge) Kendal. In 1895 George Bernard Shaw said of his new play Candida "There are only two people in the world possible for [the woman's part]: Janet Achurch, for whom it was written, and Mrs Kendal." Van Berkhout played absolutely candidly as I am sure Mrs Kendal would have done, in sensitively showing Merrick true compassion.
I was somewhat surprised that Moonlight have moved away from their original plan of presenting three plays by one major playwright each year, previously Brecht and Chekhov. Though Sullivan has understood and successfully applied the non-naturalistic style of this play, The Elephant Man does not have the complexity to properly put ANU drama graduates to the test, nor the place in the theatre canon to justify study by undergraduates.
This production turns Moonlight into just another amateur theatre group, rather than the valuable link it has been for two years between gown and town. I thought the Edith Torey Bequest, which helps fund Moonlight, specified drama education as its purpose, but there is not enough to learn from Pomerance's chronological documentary piece of "faction".
But this is not to say the evening is wasted. I found the theme demonstrated through the awful experiences of Merrick as a freak show exhibit, and the moral problem Miss Kendal causes for the treating doctor, whose Christian beliefs run counter to his science, showed how we have not come very far since the days of the real Joseph Merrick. We may think we are liberated by reality television, but it seems to me like just a new kind of freak show, engendering similar prejudicial attitudes. The anti-discrimination message is made clear in this production - a worthwhile result.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
Return to Frank McKone's Home Page