Whether the pen is mightier than the scalpel, and a poet does more good for the sick, poor and needy than the doctor, is a very different debate now than it was some 200 years ago.
Angus Graham-Campbell’s play Rebel Angel, which has just opened at London’s historic Old Operating Theatre, goes beneath the skin of the trainee sawbones-turned-writer, John Keats with surgical precision.
In one of Rebel Angel’s rare moments of comedy, Guy’s Hospital surgeon Bill Lucas (one of three roles played by the gruff and intimidating Peter Broad) advises his medical student to scuff up a new pair of shoes for better grip on the slippery, blood-soaked, floor of the operating room – and hands him the same rusty hacksaw he’s about to chop a kid’s leg off with.
Before Morton’s ether, and Lister’s sterilisation, the operating theatre was a butcher’s shop – a stinking, filthy charnel house where, to paraphrase a great line from Rebel Angel, “the only surgery you learned is how not to do it”.
You were very, very, lucky, to leave it alive. There was no place for compassion or consideration in this bloody horror show of agony, grave robbing and botched amputations.
And there was no place for a poet in a world so absent of beauty.
Enter John Keats (Jonny P Taylor), barely out of his teens, but with years as an apprentice surgeon under his belt.
With delicate hands, a thirst for knowledge, and good grasp on Latin, he’s a dead cert for a glittering career in medicine, and, after the death of Keats’ parents, his guardian Abbey (also Broad) is determined to keep him on the straight and narrow.
But, in scenes no doubt familiar to parents and school careers advisors across the world, the young man doubts the solid, profitable, respectable medical profession (and its accompanying stench of pus and equally pervasive nightmares of the latest surgical botch-job) is for him, and sets his heart on a life in the arts.
And no, he can’t just create poetry in his spare time and escape by immersing himself in the words of light and love to block out the horror.
“That’s not why I write,” Keats says. Besides – “it’s not something that just goes away.”
Rebel Angel covers that brief period before the publication of his work and the romance with Fanny Brawne (she of the “warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast”), the critical reception to his writing, the sickness, and the far-too-early death.
It’s a snapshot of a tragically short existence and a fantastic introduction to the early life and inspiration of a man ultimately embraced by the public for his way with a pen rather than a knife.
I left rather hoping that writer and Keats mega-fan Angus Graham-Campbell produces a part two.
Taylor’s Keats is very, intense, solemn, quiet and understated, far from the debauched whoring stereotype of an artist imagined by an appalled Abbey.
He died young but didn’t quite live fast, it seems.
There’s little humour in the role, and, while I didn’t exactly warm to the character, I liked the way he has been written and played as suitably fickle for a man of 20 without veering into a flaky silly fantasist.
We see a man who can dedicate six romantic poems to a woman (Polly Edsell, endearingly starstruck as she copies out Keats’s poems as I did with pop lyrics in the ’90s) one day, then appear desperate to get away from her the next.
He revels in a sunny day outside and then complains that it is too hot.
But the decision to quit medicine is debated at length. The opinions of others are sought and the gravity of the decision is etched on his face.
In one scene, he poignantly takes the threat of being mocked by society more seriously than any warnings about poverty and degradation.
The real John Keats died just a few years later, unconvinced that he’d ever be remembered. Yet Taylor captures him perfectly with a mix of self-belief and subtle cockiness.
He’s yet to realise just how hard the life of a poet could be despite the scoffing of everybody around him.
I was very surprised to discover that cast member Max Marcq was making his professional debut.
He is extremely watchable as a foil to Keats – a tall, posh, fellow medical student fully embracing his path – but underused in his second role as poet Leigh Hunt, the man responsible for sucking Keats into full-time poetry with the promise of publication.
There’s no time in the 75 minute production to elaborate on that relationship, but I’d love to have seen more.
Young Theo Peters, as a surgeon’s victim, the child Keats (beautifully devoted to a mother who died young), and a Shakespearean stage actor, is also a joy to watch.
Lighting designer Matthew Evered has done a fine job accompanying the space’s slightly stifling heat with a warm glow, accompanied by birdsong, drawing us out of the operating theatre or tavern.
The play’s opening scene – a grisly amputation – is classily accompanied by a deep red glow standing in for anything more gory which could ruin the historic venue’s floorboards.
A play about a poet, with little of his poetry in it, seems a risky move (we get rather a lot of Shakespeare instead, to illustrate Keats’s newfound love affair with the stage) but of course, by this point, he hadn’t really written much.
There’s still poetry to be found in Angus Graham-Campbell’s script, and a lack of Keats’s own words only inspired me to go home afterward and delve into them. Big fan of Sonnet to a Cat (1818), in particular.
The Old Operating Theatre is an absolute treasure of an attraction.
While it usually hosts lectures and book launches (I highly recommend Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art, out this autumn, for more on the horrors of the historical operating room), it’s a stroke of genius to hold this production at the venue.
It seats an audence of about 45 in the round on the wooden benches that once held gawping surgical spectators and medical students.
The play is a lesson in ignoring the pessimists and the critics and, ultimately, following your heart. Life, particularly in Keats’s case, is too short not to.
Rebel Angel runs until October 7. Bring a cushion and don’t try and navigate the ancient spiral staircase in high heels.
There’s poetry to be found in Angus Graham-Campbell’s well researched Rebel Angel that probes the life of our brightest star, trainee surgeon-turned English Romantic poet, John Keats.