Bradley Cooper returns to the role of disfigured London celebrity Joseph Merrick – better known as The Elephant Man for a three month run on the West End.
Although The Elephant Man is expressionistic in style, it is based on true historical events. Joseph Merrick (referred to as “John” in the play) suffered from a condition that no one had properly recognised. After being toured around the UK and Europe under the not-too-flattering title, he is rescued by surgeon Frederick Treves who studied him at the London Hospital in White Chapel up until Merrick’s death in 1890.
The play, written by Bernard Pomerance, premiered at the Booth Theater on Broadway in April 1979 and returned there for a much-lauded revival last winter. It has garnered 4 Tony Award nominations, including one for Bradley for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. There are also nods for fellow leads, Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola and for Best Rvival.
As the script instructs, Bradley declines make up and prosthetics. Instead he contorts his body and his face, adding layers of speech as he gulps and gasps to communicate through mishappen lips.
Director Scott Ellis stages an anatomy lesson with Treves addressing his students in front of a full length photograph of the near-naked Merrick and Bradley performs a mimed illustration of the lecture.
In her Variety review, Marilyn Stasio writes : “as Nivola’s Treves dispassionately drones on about his subject’s twisted limbs and misshapen torso, Cooper stands stock still in a cone of light and silently contorts his own perfect body into an approximation of each deformity. The piece de résistance is the depiction of the wide slobbering aperture that is Merrick’s mouth. Shaping his own mouth into a fleshy oval, the thesp gives expressive voice to the sensitive and intelligent human being imprisoned in his own body. It’s a stunning performance, deeply felt and very moving”.
Bradley returened to normal to greet fans at the stage door barriers on opening night.