Written for The Stage
Even to this day, pictures of Joseph C Merrick inspire feelings of faint terror. He sits somewhere between us and the monster – out of his eyes shine a soul but his deformity makes him a freakish outlier. In Elephant Man, showing at Institut Français, Benoit Hattet manages to combine both in an often unbearable performance.
We are ushered into Mr Merrick’s room at the London Hospital by his stern nurse (a sophisticated Isabelle Bouvrain). She is both Merrick’s showman and his carer – a nurturing but controlling presence. Though supposedly interactive, those of a nervous disposition shouldn’t be afraid – in this respect at least – in what is a very gentle game of to and fro.
Elephant Man plays with ideas of ghoulish voyeurism and human compassion as we walk the fine line between fascination and pity. While Hattet and Bouvrain’s relationship is fascinating in itself, it is – perhaps rightly – the Elephant Man who demands your focus.
Hattet is electric at Merrick, a wheezing and twisted form with a witty, passionate and intelligent human soul. Without any special effects his body is utterly transformed into deformity with a skill that is at times breathtaking, while his tragic longing to be normal is utterly heartbreaking.