Pros: The venue is stunning and offers the perfect atmosphere for the play.
Cons: The theatre is located at the top of a narrow spiral staircase and patrons are advised to contact the organisers for more details on accessibility.
After climbing the 52 wooden steps that form its narrow spiral staircase, I was excited to walk into one of the oldest surviving operating theatres in Europe. Located in the attic of an English Baroque church, the space had been initially used as a herb garret, before being converted into an operating theatre in the 19th century.
The theatre itself is quite confined, surrounded on three sides by a raked viewing platform, where the medical students and surgeons’ apprentices would have been standing to watch the ongoing operation. The plank with an adjustable headrest, which served as a table for the surgery is still in the centre of the room, whereas two enamel basins, a pitcher and some obsolete surgical tools are all aligned on top of the cabinet in the far corner. Written above the main wall, the Latin inscription ‘Miseratione Non Mercede’ reminded the doctors that the main incentive for their profession was compassion and not the promise of a fee.
Performed within this atmospheric setting, Rebel Angel revisits the short life of John Keats, from his childhood resolution to become a surgeon to the final decision – aged 21 – to abandon his medical practice and dedicate himself entirely to poetry.
As a wider framework, the play also embodies the long-standing conflict between scientific and artistic careers, where the latter becomes the underdog amongst the advocates of socially useful and respectably profitable occupations. ‘You can do much better for humanity with a knife in your hand than with a pen in a lifetime’, replies Stephens (Max Marcq) after Keats’ announcement that he’ll leave his post at Guy’s Hospital, summing up in a sentence the widespread resistance encountered by the poet.
In the main role, Jonny P. Taylor reflects the charming image of a committed and kind-hearted man, but it’s Theo Peter’s portrayal of the young Keats, so devoted to his poorly mother, that I’ll remember the most. Both actors deliver their lines with gentle gestures and thoughtful pacing, features that contribute greatly to the identity their character. Except for the lead, each performer covers multiple roles, which are easily recognisable for the changes in their beautiful Georgian costumes.
Matthew Evered’s evocative lighting treats the barely-furnished space like a canvas, on which he paints each scene with different gradients of colour. The flaming red of the opening scene in the operating theatre becomes a frosty blue for the nightly meeting with the grave robbers, before warming up again during the sun kissed afternoon where Keats goes to the park with his schoolmaster (Fred Fergus).
Angus Graham-Campbell’s drama concludes with Keats’ departure from London, before we can learn more about the progresses of his literary career. Thankfully, history tells us that he made the right decision by putting down the knife to pick up the pen. His verses are regarded amongst the finest of British literature, despite his premature death at the age of 25.
Cherry on top of this unusual evening at the theatre, were all the curious instruments and paraphernalia collected in the museum, for which I wish I had gone in a bit earlier. If you haven’t been yet to the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, I urge you to do so and I can’t possibly think of a better occasion to visit than for this melancholic and inspiring play.
Written and Directed By: Angus Graham-Campbell
Producer: Joe Bates
Booking Link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/rebel-angel-at-the-old-operating-theatre-tickets-36360903441
Booking Until: 7 October 2017