Theatre Mask Rupert Graves Online: Stage Productions.
The Elephant Man.


Production Information:

Year: - 2002.

Author: - Bernard Pomerance.
Director: - Sean Mathias.
Venue: - Royale Theater, Broadway.
Rupert Graves: - Dr. Frederick Treves.

Spacer The Elephant Man

Synopsis Or Review:

Some Thoughts on The Elephant Man....

I don't really see any point in discussing the play itself over much; the Broadway run is, unfortunately, over. If you're really interested, you should be able to pick up a copy of the script without too much difficulty - an exercise I highly recommend, because it is a play well worth reading. It's a play with a very cinemagraphic, even, as Kate Burton styled it, episodic structure: It's in 21 scenes, each leading into the next with no intermission, i.e., a fascinating blend of theatrical and cinemagraphic styles. For the actors, I expect this must have been a satisfying sort of play to perform: First of all, there is real continuity (so often missing in making a film); and, though the scenes are short, there is strong development in each of them.

The play itself does, of course, have your basic three act structure:

Introduction/Exposition, Development/Complication and Resolution/Climax (a gross oversimplification if ever there was one); so it is, on the whole, as satisfying a piece of theatre as you're likely to see and/or read.

Also, personally, I found reading the play after I had seen it to be very informative, because of Sean Mathias' direction, which, even without being familiar with the play beforehand, I found to be very intriguing indeed. I don't know what the director did in 1979 with the subtitles/comments/epigraphs with which Pomerance heads each scene in the script, but Mathias had them flashed across the top of the proscenium arch like supertitles while, in addition, the company recited them together ensemble. And yes, the effect was Brechtian, the adjective that's been bruited about most often regarding Mathias' direction.

But it is, as a description, dead on target: During the 17th and 18th scenes, for instance, when Graves spread himself out on the platform in the center of the stage and then got turned slowly around while Merrick - reversing roles with Treves in Treves' dream - delivered a parody of Treves' own lecture on Merrick earlier in the play (Scene 3), it was reminiscent of the more outrageous moments in, say, Mahagony or Three Penny Opera. But it is in the script. Mathias was building on what was already there. (My eyes incidentally were bugging out of my head: Graves hung on while being manipulated like a prop, even free standing as the "chorus" turned the platform to "exhibit" him, a bit of understated athleticism that was brilliant both in conception and execution.)

Kate Burton's performance as Mrs. Kendal - the mother/mistress/lover Merrick can never have - was remarkable, too; the more so since the character is only in five scenes. Burton brought to it a depth a lot of actors might not have done: The character is very amusing and sexy, even glib; it would have been very easy to have played her without any depth at all, to play her, in fact, as little more than a nicely feminine adjunct to Merrick's search for his own center. But Burton was just . . . so there! And effortlessly. Easy going with a transparency of style/technique/whatever you want to call it. Definitely deserving of the Tony nod: Hedda Gabler (her other Tony nomination this year) has never been an easy play for me to watch, because it cuts so close to the bone, but I find myself wishing now I'd been able to see Burton's performance in it.

Billy Crudup's performance was also transparent. He has excellent stagecraft, projected beautifully and delivered a physical performance that implied the terrible disfigurement of Merrick without being in the least grotesque (which the playwright apparently, believed would only detract from the central drama); indeed, Crudup, given his character, was quite graceful.

He also managed a sort of generic working-class British accent, which, to my American ears, sounded pretty good.
But, as Crudup himself pointed out in an interview with Charlie Rose broadcast on PBS the very day of The Elephant Man's last performance, while the play is called The Elephant Man, the "arc" of the story, so to speak, really isn't about Merrick. From first to last, his is a character already centered, already fully grown, with a depth already achieved by a life of terrible adversity that only needed a measure of compassion and plain, old-fashioned kindliness to blossom: He is the standard of humanity against whom everyone else in the play is measured. The true center of the story is Treves, i.e., Rupert Graves' character. . . .

Now as to his performance, I confess, right up front, it was in fact the reason I wanted to see The Elephant Man in the first place, so you may want to take what follows with a grain of salt. But while I do admit to being prejudiced, I don't think I am so far gone as to have left my critical faculties at the door. Besides, I'm not sure it matters: Clive Barnes, and the New York critics generally, had it right: Graves' performance was not, in point of fact, the most striking in the play; that honor goes to Billy Crudup; Graves' performance was, however, far and away, the most powerful:

Billy Crudup: . . . It really is Treves's journey, and he's played by an exceptional actor named Rupert Graves.

Charlie Rose: Right.

Billy Crudup: And he is the central character in this play in so many ways, because Treves is the one who goes through an emotional arc. Joseph Merrick is really there to stand in the face of everybody around him, but he remains a kind of rock with his faith and inspiration, whereas Treves, who was a man living in the most powerful country in the world at the time, a country who was defining every other country with their colonies, with their Christianity, with their politics, with their economy, felt like he was at the apex of every existent world.

Charlie Rose: Is Merrick Treves' savior, or is . . .

Billy Crudup: Absolutely. Merrick is Treves' savior; and that's what happens in the play, and Treves discovers that he has every possible 'fixing' of worth and value, without any of the soul. And so, when he sees a guy who has nothing, but has an incredible life, he has to question every aspect of his own humanity, including all the tenents that he lives by, and that's the remarkable journey. . .

(Quoted from the aforementioned June 3, 2002, broadcast.)

Seven months ago, if anyone had mentioned Rupert Graves to me, I probably would have said, "Oh, yeah. That cute kid from Maurice. Right?" But I've seen a whole lot of other film performances of his now (though by no means his complete oeuvre), as well as a first rate performance in a fine play - and all in six months - performances ranging over a 17 or 18 year period: In fact, it's difficult sometimes actually to grasp that, in such a relatively short period of time, the man has gone from the playing the bumptious, primarily decorative Freddy Honeychurch to fully realizing Mr. Frederick Treves, soon to be Sir Frederick Treves, surgeon extraordinaire: Treves, as played by Graves, starts out a pompous Victorian stuffed shirt, paunch, drawl, arrogance, smugness and all, transformed by ever deepening compassion, moment by moment, experience by experience, encounter by encounter, until, finally, shorn of all certainties, he cried out for help in a voice that tore the collective heart out of the audience - only to have that followed by a breathtaking (and shattering) coda to the scene (19) as Merrick put the last touch on the model of St. Philips that he was building and said, quietly, "It is done," as if the model were a metaphor for the way his beautiful and loving personality has effectively deconstructed Treves. . . .

I saw three of the five Tony-nominated best actor performances while I was in New York. Alan Rickman in Private Lives was, as ever, marvelous. But I'm sorry to have to report that I think the stagecraft exhibited in The Crucible was a disappointment. Liam Neeson and several others in the cast were, painfully obviously, film actors and just not up to snuff: Movement on the stage not infrequently awkward, whole speeches were muddled, and the projection was very poor: There were times I was mightily tempted to yell out, "Speak up!"

Unfortunately, in these decadent latter days, we groundlings are not allowed to vent; all it would have done would have been to get me thrown out of the theatre!
Well, Graves' stagecraft is exceptionally fine! That wonderful voice that can range from a gruff baritone all the way up into the countertenor stratosphere had every word crisply audible, he moves with decision and grace on the stage and, it was clear, was actually communicating with his fellow actors!

He also has the gift of sponteneity (indeed all three leads had it), perhaps the most difficult effect for a performer to achieve; there was a lively give and take with the audience, and he demonstrated a pallette of vocal colors I can remembering hearing in none of his films (though he has deployed it in his audio, spoken word work): For example, in scene 7, when Treves had only just finished telling Merrick there would be no more people coming to gawk at him and, immediately, two employees of the hospital did just that, the sheer outrage in Graves' voice as he shouted at them, "You were told not to do this!" was priceless; part of me wanted to laugh, the other part to cheer.

Another point that wants making: I do not know this man personally. But - as an actor - he clearly possesses a generosity of spirit that floods the house. He gives of himself unstintingly and, as must inevitably happen when that occurs, it pulls the audience right in till one would swear everyone in the theatre is breathing with him. I have known other artists in other media who achieve this, and, I believe, it can only be achieved by the sheer, reckless, even abandoned giving of the artist of him- or herself to the audience, trusting in the habits of craftsmanship to bridge any potential perils. But it is a rare gift. Unfortunately, there are altogether too many actors/singers/dancers/what-have-you who are either so full of themselves, or else so preoccupied with technique, that any real sense of them never makes it much past the footlights.

Such is not the case with Rupert Graves.

But all of this does leave me with a question: Is Graves one of those actors who only comes fully alive in front of an audience? I just don't know. His film performances in Where Angels Fear To Tread, Different For Girls, Mrs Dalloway, Dreaming of Joseph Lees, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Madness of King George, Bent, and so on, are all strong and finely nuanced: The scene in the Church of Santa Deodata with Helena Bonham-Carter, or the one after Gino has just finished beating the crap out of Philip; the scene in DFG in Prentice's flat in which he and Kim end up dancing; the final scene for Septimus in Mrs Dalloway; the scene in King George when, in the garden, the recovering king insists that his equerry (Graves), the prime minister and that dreadful doctor read King Lear aloud; or, perhaps closest of all to what he did in The Elephant Man effectively to tear one's heart out, the "This most violent pain" episode in Joseph Lees - there is no question but that these are particularly fine moments in performances that are, generally speaking, damned near perfect.

Nevertheless, it was Graves' performance as Treves that finally has me quite convinced, thank you very much, that we have here a skilled actor like few working today in any medium anywhere.

And, yes. I do think Graves' performance was deserving of a nomination for a Tony. And I shall go right on saying so. (After all, three years later and I'm still furious that Denzel Washington didn't win the Oscar for Hurricane!) He may not be the huge American-style "star" into which Liam Neeson has transformed himself, but he's head and shoulders above Neeson as a stage actor.
Sorry. Yes, I do know that comparisons are odious. . . .

Still, as Miss Abbott says to Mr. Herriton in Where Angels Fear To Tread: "You're so splendid; I can't bear to see you wasted. . . . I do so wish something would happen to you. . . ."

I can only hope that, one day, a really great director (and, after all, he has worked with so many of them) will find a powerful and intelligent script, cast Graves in it, and allow him, on film, finally, to blow us all out of the water with the full breadth and depth of his astonishing capacity. Villain or hero? Is it relevant? Does it matter?

Who cares ?

I sure don't . . . I just know that we will all be vastly the richer for it when - when! Not if! - It happens. . .
J.K.Drummond.
©Rupert Graves Online.


Cast & Crew Information:

Mrs Kendal - Kate Burton.
John merrick - Billy Crudup.
Frederick Treves - Rupert Graves.

Belgian Policeman / Conductor / Snork - Christopher Duva.
Carr Gomm - Edmond Genest.
Ross / Bishop Walsham How - Jack Gilpin.
Pinhead Manager / London Policeman / Wil / Lord John - James Riordan.
Pinhead / Miss Sandwich / Duchess / Princess Alexandra - Jenna Stern.
London Policeman - Nick Toren.
Pinhead - Lynn Wright.

Understudies:

Stevie Ray Dallimore (Frederick Treves).
Jenna Stern (Mrs. Kendal, Pinhead),
Nick Toren (Belgian Policeman, Conductor, Countess, John Merrick, London Policeman, Lord John, Pinhead Manager, Snork, Will).
Joe Vincent (Belgian Policeman, Bishop Walsham How, Carr Gomm, London Policeman, Pinhead, Ross).
Lynn Wright (Duchess, Miss Sandwich, Pinhead, Princess Alexandra).

Director - Sean Mathias.
Incidental Music - Philip Glass.
Scenic & Costume Design - Santo Loquasto.
Lighting Design - James F. Ingalls.

Sound Design - David Shapiro & ADI Group.
Projection Design - Michael Clark.
Associate Scenic Design - David Swayze.
Associate Costume Design - Cherie Trotter.
Hair and Wig Design - Robert-Charles Vallance.
Production Stage Manager - Arthur Gaffin.
Stage Manager - David Sugarman.
Dialect Coach - Elizabeth A. Smith.

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