Poet John Keats remembered in Rebel Angel at the Old Operating Theatre

He was a maverick of his time. Rebel Angel puts medical student turned poet, John Keats, centre stage in a remarkable new play being performed at Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre, the Old Operating Theatre opposite Guy’s Hospital at London Bridge.

Playwright, dramatist and Keats-Shelley expert, Angus Graham-Campbell, celebrates the short, extraordinary life of the renowned English Romantic poet whose journey of self-discovery stunned his colleagues, his friends and his family when, at the age of 21, he gave up a promising career in medicine to become a full time poet.

Jonny Taylor as John Keats. Photo by Iona Wolff.

Set in 1816 when George III was on the throne, and Napoleon had just been defeated at Waterloo, Rebel Angel takes place in the well of the old theatre where operations were performed.

The audience will sit on the tiers originally occupied by the watching (and frequently fainting) medical students.

Rebel Angel brings to life key characters that peopled John Keats’ extraordinary, short life from doctors, medical students and body snatchers to actors, writers, friends, family and inspiring individuals.

The talented cast includes the fast-rising Jonny Taylor, as Keats, and Peter Broad as surgeon Bill ‘Butcher’ Lucas. Both actors are currently performing in Twelfth Night at Cornwall’s open-air Minack Theatre.

They are joined by LAMDA graduate Fred Fergus, Edinburgh Fringe star Tom Palmer and Central School of Speech and Drama graduates Max Marcq and Polly Edsell.

Scenes take place in the operating theatre, the Drury Lane Theatre, the Golden Lion pub, Keats’ digs and a number of locations from Keats’ childhood.

The play opens with the gruesome re-enactment of a blundering pre-anaesthesia amputation.

John Keats was only 20 when he registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital.

Proving to be a quick learner the hospital soon had visions of him becoming a top surgeon but Keats’ sensitive heart lay elsewhere.

He’d been composing poetry and sonnets since his childhood and while he was studying at Guy’s, had his first work published.

Inspired by the work of his contemporaries, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and buoyed by the encouragement of Charles Cowden Clarke, he decided to jump ship and become a full time writer…even though he could barely afford pen and ink.

Keats would likely have made a wonderful doctor and famously cared for his mother and his brother, both of whom died of tuberculosis – the disease that was to claim his own life at the age of 25.

Angus Graham-Campbell is a lifelong student of Keats’ work and is familiar with the conundrum faced by every generation of students.

He said: “As a teacher I’ve long been involved in the process of young people making life choices.

“It’s often between traditional careers – prompted by parents and well-meaning careers advisors – and more creative directions.

“All good stories and plays are about pivotal moments and in Rebel Angel I explore the choice faced by Keats in an extreme dilemma.

“His choices are represented by theatres: the operating theatre and the stage at Drury Lane Theatre, as his poetic ambitions culminate with a desire to emulate Shakespeare as a poetic dramatist.”

Angus Graham-Campbell has been editor of The Keats Shelley Review and trustee of Keats House Rome; he has presented several plays about Keats and Shelley in Europe and in 1995, wrote a version of Rebel Angel for BBC Radio 4.

“I have always been struck by the immediate rapport between Keats and the young,” notes Graham-Campbell. “He made the hard choices, the romantic ones, and they weren’t understood or rewarded in his lifetime.

Most people who make life choices empathise with that!”

Rebel Angel runs at the Old Operating Theatre from September 19 – October 7.

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