What a site!

What a site!

I went to the theatre last night. Nothing odd/interesting in that you may be thinking but this was a theatre in a different vein – an operating theatre. To be precise it was the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret near Guy’s Hospital. I was there to see a performance of a new play Rebel Angel (more of which below) which gave me pause to reflect on the rise of site specific theatre over the last ten years or so. As you are probably aware this is when a play is designed to be performed at a unique, specially adapted location other than a standard theatre. I can’t say I’ve seen that many productions in such a location and have always been slightly wary of it being a gimmick used to turn attention away from the fact that the production itself isn’t that good. However, there is no doubt that such locations lend a certain frisson – I loved the recent idea of setting Sweeney Todd in a pop up pie and mash shop for instance. And there is no doubt that the Old Operating Theatre certainly fitted what I was about to see. What follows is my review of the piece.

Old-op-the-lond

2017-08-10_103814_rebelangelBeauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. So run the closing lines of John Keats’ Ode On A Grecian Urn. And it is with this, at the time, half formed realisation that the young poet is struggling during the course of Angus Graham-Campbell’s play Rebel Angel. The young Keats (though he never really lived long enough to be anything but young) is a promising medical student learning to be a surgeon in the days before hygiene was de rigueur and operations were performed without benefit of anaesthetic. But he is also an admirer of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and the other Romantic poets and longs to emulate his literary heroes. So he turns his back on the prospects of immediate success in medical science which he is beginning to find ugly and frustrating and places his faith in the shining possibilities of the arts and creativity. It is this dynamic which forms the tension at the heart of the play.

Appropriately the site specific setting of this piece of drama is still in a theatre but of the surgical variety being The Old Operating Theatre Museum (near London Bridge). Indeed the play begins with the traumatic amputation of a 14 year old’s leg and it is this that proves the beginning of the end for the promising young surgeon. The set for the recent BBC2 comedy Quacks was clearly based on this location and both before and after the show it is interesting to see the “chamber of horrors” in which contemporary surgical equipment is displayed. Do not expect comfortable seating but with the piece running to just 75 minutes that is not a major issue.

2979_1506069412The piece, although short, is quite wordy and dense (much like a Keats poem?). In this it betrays its origins as a radio play and although the arguments put forward are interesting there are few moments of real tension. After all, we already know the path Keats will eventually choose. Along the way, though, there are some interesting scenes. In an early flashback we see the even younger Keats with his mother already caught between the worlds of the imagination and practicality. In another the protagonist becomes Antonio in The Merchant of Venice about to suffer the ravages of Shylock’s surgery/butchery.

As John Keats, Jonny P Taylor dominates proceedings with an assured performance. He radiates a quiet intensity which gradually builds throughout the piece and clearly demonstrates the budding poet’s disillusion with the life he will lead if he chooses to continue as a medic. Avoiding the cliché of the pining poet, Taylor gives a steady account of the writer’s struggle with his own conscience and the stated wishes of others. That said I think, physically, this actor might have been better suited to playing Lord Byron; there was little suggestion of the consumption/TB that was to finish Keats off just a few years later.

2979_1506069428All the other characters were played by an ensemble of six actors. These included Keats’ fellow surgical students, his mother and his guardian, various friends, a pair of shady grave robbers and the great early 19th century actor Edmund Kean with whom Keats seems to have been a little obsessed. None of these roles are particularly showy and with a small cast playing multiple parts it is sometimes difficult to keep up with who is who. There was perhaps a need for more differentiation both in the script and in the production design; I felt particularly for Polly Edsell who takes on all the female roles.

Keats, of course, eventually chooses the aesthetic pleasures of poetry over the brutal reality of surgery. In doing so he is likened to the “rebel angel” in Milton’s Paradise Lost and the last moments of the play see him about to depart from London clutching a copy of this poem given to him as a parting gift from a friend. Keats has made his decision and turned his back on his old life to embrace literature and posthumous fame: Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.*

So a site specific convert? Not quite but it did help this particular piece ring true and it did give an edge to exploring the different types of theatre (operating, dramatic and of the imagination) so pertinent to the central character’s life. Perhaps I’ll try and mount a site specific production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream set on a real cabin cruiser on an actual river. Should be interesting; just need to decide how to accommodate an audience!

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

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