Keats’ move to verse brought to life in operating theatre

PUBLISHED: 12:30 20 September 2017

Old Operation Theatre. Picture: MA Walker

Old Operation Theatre. Picture: MA Walker

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The moment Hampstead poet John Keats’ turned from medicine to verse is dramatised in an immersive play in a 200-year-old operating theatre.

Rebel Angel: Jonny Taylor as John Keats. Picture: Iona Wolff Rebel Angel: Jonny Taylor as John Keats. Picture: Iona Wolff

The moment Hampstead poet John Keats’ turned from medicine to verse is dramatised in an immersive play in a 200-year-old operating theatre.

Audiences of 45 a time will watch Rebel Angel from the “incredibly claustrophobic and atmospheric” stands where medical students would often faint while watching operations.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum is near Guy’s Hospital where Keats began studying medicine in October 1815.

Angus Graham-Campbell’s play follows the year when he met contemporary Percy Shelley in Hampstead and had his first work published.

“It’s exciting to bring theatre into such a vibrant active space,” says Graham-Campbell, a trustee of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome where the poet died of tuberculosis in 1821.

An earlier version aired on Radio 4 on the bicentenary of the poet’s birth and this revised production is funded by the Keats-Shelley Association.

“When Keats was 14 his dad fell off a horse and his mother got consumption. He nursed her and later his brother Tom. In hindsight it looks odd that he wanted to be a doctor but he 
was a caring person who spent a great deal of his life looking 
after other people and I think would have made a brilliant doctor.”

Graham-Campbell says the play is relevant to younger audiences in dramatising “the choice between a traditional money-making job and the arts.”

“Keats is a writer whose early death, sense of melancholy, and charisma have given him rock star status.”

It also reflects the pivotal role of mentors – Keats was assistant to notorious surgeon Bill ‘butcher’ Lucas while his inspirational teacher Charles Cowden Clarke introduced him to progressive ideas and the left wing Hampstead radical Leigh Hunt.

“It’s about the people he was around, the bad medical mentors and terrific literary ones at that moment he was making the decision to give up medicine and commit himself to poetry. It’s tremendous to write a site specific version of the play performed in exactly the kind of space he would have operated in.

“Keats wanted to write for the theatre like Shakespeare, so the old operating theatre doubles as Drury Lane the theatre he aspired to write for.”

Built in 1822, the theatre saw female patients endure surgery without anaesthesia or basic hygiene. Rebel Angel opens with a staged amputation and goes on to feature doctors, students, bodysnatchers writers and friends who shaped Keats’ decision.

Until October 7 at Old Operating Theatre in St Thomas Street oldoperatingtheatre.com.

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