Theatre review: Rebel Angel, the Old Operating Theatre

Keats’ early life as a medical student is dramatised against Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre

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Jonny P Taylor as Keats with Peter Broad as his guardian, Mr Abbey, credit: Chris Nash

As atmospheric venues go, the Old Operating Theatre in London Bridge is hard to beat. Creaking with history, the tiny amphitheatre was used, until its closure in the mid-1800s,  by St Thomas’ Hospital to demonstrate surgery – usually amputations on the poor – to medical students who packed the narrow rows that look down on the bloody show.

One of the students who passed through the garret theatre was young nightingale fan John Keats. The poet lived over the road with his friend and fellow medical student Henry Stephens, who would also ditch the amputations and go on to make a fortune in ink. 

Doe-eyed Keats realised early on in his medical training that he was more cut out for stanzas than surgery and this production of Rebel Angel examines his journey from reluctant student to his (very) early Endymion days. The play doesn’t follow a chronological order, so we oscillate between Keats’ childhood as an obedient, enthusiastic child attempting to soothe his mother, whose violent coughing signposts both her own demise and her son’s early death, and his days as a student.  We leave John at the end waiting for his coach on the first leg of his travels to Rome where he would go on to write the poems that would see his name mentioned in the same breathe as his heroes, Byron and Shelley.

Thankfully Rebel Angel is far less bloody than the shows the audience witnessed in Victorian times, although this production is every bit as fascinating and enthralling as those demos would no doubt have been to the young men of the time (except Keats’ queasy friend Tyrrell who wisely opts for the pub over another botched surgery experiment).

Keats, played with considered intensity by Jonny P Taylor, sacrificed much for his poetry and posthumous fame. He fought with his guardian, Mr Abbey, who had been left as the boy’s charge when his mother died when Keats was 14. In this production Mr Abbey (Peter Broad) represents the old school, a man who has little time for fancy words and dandy ways and Keats isn’t afraid to leave him behind in hope of poetry glory.

Taylor’s Keats is far from the waif like figure he is often portrayed as – all flouncy blouses and pining for Fanny Brawne – he is determined and single-minded. He’s not afraid to stand up to boorish surgeon Bill Lucas (also played with great pomposity by Peter Broad) after a slip of the knife ends another young patient’s life. And young John doesn’t so much woo young ladies with fine words as experiment with their hearts – his poetry his surgeon’s knife.

The small cast play several characters adeptly and director and writer Angus Graham-Campbell makes fine use of the confined and stripped back setting. As any student of English Literature knows, having a framework can enable a poem to pack an even greater emotional punch.

Rebel Angel | the Old Operating Theatre, SE1 | Until 7 October 2017

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Theatre review: The Divine Comedy, Barons Court Theatre

An impressive re-telling of an allegorical journey through sin and salvation.

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Alex Chard as Dante in So It Goes Theatre’s retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy

There’s something fitting about hell being represented in a dank basement, with a pub (so often a heavenly respite) above us. Purgatory? Let that be the ramshackly awkward pre-curtain queue that wound up the stairs sending theatre goers into the path of diners and waiters.

Douglas Baker’s adaptation of Dante’s three-part journey through hell, purgatory and paradise is both ambitious and low-key. It takes the 14th century poet’s mammoth text and reduces it to a whirlwind 90-minute production, compressing  the main themes into a zippy, but no less powerful play.

The play is brought into the 21st century, a risky move that works despite the juxtaposition ofLatin poet Virgil in a Harrington jacket talking about sin and salvation and somehow God being the biggest character in this drama doesn’t seem anachronistic. 

We meet Dante – a character is his own poem – as he’s about to throw himself off a bridge in despair at the death of his lover. But his attempt is scuppered when Virgil, sent by the very woman he is grieving, turns up with a very persuasive case not to jump: a tour of hell, destined to be Dante’s abode for eternity should his suicide attempt work. 

In the original poem, Dante’s saviour, Beatrice is a mysterious woman whose identity remains a puzzle for scholars, but whose presence grounds the poem. In this production, her ambiguity is stripped away and she is positioned firmly as Dante’s dead lover.  

Oddly, while the pace of this production is brisk, Beatrice’s glacial arrival in beige heaven rather stalls the play. Despite Kathryn Taylor-Gears‘s calm, assured and thoughtful performance, the momentum sags as she argues with Dante to reconsider his faith before contemplating a jump into the afterlife.

The atmosphere in the Barons Court Theatre  is naturally claustrophobic and menacing, but the lighting and projections ramp up the tension.  While the moments of physical theatre movement director Matt Coulton introduces help to sustain the momentum and inject some energy.

The Divine Comedy is no Fawlty Towers in the laugh department, but there are some moments of wit in this production. The tube as purgatory is amusing – although during a heatwave, the Central line can feel more like hell.

The cast are all excellent, the all-female chorus (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie) bring a haunting aura in their various stages in the afterlife, while Alex Chard is captivating and assured as a baby-faced Dante.

An original and creative production that stokes the fire of Dante’s poem with flair and invention.

The Divine Comedy | Barons Court Theatre | Until 30 September 2017