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