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Obituary: Bernard Pomerance

Bernard Pomerance. Photo: Mick Lindberg
Bernard Pomerance. Photo: Mick Lindberg

As co-founder of the Foco Novo theatre company, Bernard Pomerance helped shape Britain’s alternative theatre movement in the early 1970s, but he will be best remembered for his Tony award-winning play The Elephant Man.

Originally staged by Foco Novo at the Hampstead Theatre in 1977, The Elephant Man transferred to Broadway two years later, where it ran for 916 performances and attracted tabloid attention when pop icon David Bowie took over the lead role from its creator David Schofield.

A portrait of the unfortunate John Merrick, whose disfigurement by elephantiasis made him an unlikely celebrity in Victorian London, Pomerance’s play had at its heart a compassionate conviction in the abiding strength of the human spirit. Merrick, hitherto reduced to a soulless carnival exhibit, blossomed under the protective wing of the doctor Frederick Treves, first played in 1977 by David Allister.

The New York Times described it as a “haunting parable about natural man trading his frail beauty and innocence for the protection and prison of society”, and it continues to exert a compelling fascination that deftly courts the voyeuristic without ever becoming exploitative.

It was seen at the National Theatre in 1980 and remains Pomerance’s most revived play, returning twice to Broadway, in 2002 and more recently in 2014 with Hollywood film star Bradley Cooper as Merrick. Cooper reprised the role at Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2015.

Although commonly assumed to have been based on the play, David Lynch’s identically titled 1980 film, starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins as Merrick and Treves, shared only biographical and historical details.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Pomerance moved to London in 1968 where he met the director Roland Rees, who went on to direct his first two plays – High in Vietnam, Hot Damn and Foco Novo – in 1972, the latter play providing a name for the company the two formed with producer David Aukin the same year.

His other plays included Someone Else Is Still Someone (Bush Theatre, 1974), an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man (Hampstead Theatre, 1975) and several works exploring the contested social politics of his native America, most notably Quantrill in Lawrence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1981 and Melons. In the latter, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Other Place, Stratford, in 1984, Ben Kingsley played a Native American chief whose reclusive exile from his tribal birthplace transformed him into a Messiah figure.

Bernard Pomerance was born on September 23, 1940, and died on August 26, aged 76. Twice married, he is survived by two children from his first marriage to the journalist and writer Sally Belfrage.

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