Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Irish Giant at Southwark Playhouse

John Hunter was a collector. In his Earls Court home, the pioneering eighteenth century surgeon and anatomist kept a menagerie to aid his studies - eagles, buffalo, zebra – and he generated enough carefully preserved and labelled anatomical specimens to fill a museum. When Charles Byrne, a young man from Tyrone who stood seven and a half feet tall in his stockinged feet and had a fondness for the bottle, arrived in London to seek his fortune, Hunter’s interest was not that of the casual gawker: he wanted Byrne’s bones.

While his colleagues in the medical profession were still enthusiastically blood-letting and fretting about the imbalance of humours, Hunter advocated careful observation of the body, its structure and its systems. Dissection was central to this process, though bodies were not easy to come by. Even in the eighteenth century, the supply of freshly executed men was limited, so his students had to use other, more questionable means to obtain their cadavers.

Byrne being a god-fearing sort believed, as many did, that if his soul was going to make it to heaven, his body needed to remain whole, intact, unsliced by the surgeon’s knife. He had spent so much of his life on display and did not want Hunter to get hold of his mortal remains, so he gave word that when he died – illness and drink would finish him at the age of 22 – he should be buried at sea in a weighted coffin. The fact that Byrne’s huge skeleton still looms large in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons suggests that plan didn’t quite pan out: Hunter was determined to have his prize (And it was a prize: Byrne’s sizeable skeletal feet can be glimpsed over Hunter’s shoulder in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous portrait of him).

This is Cartoon de Salvo’s second production to mark their fifteenth anniversary year – their first was the entirely improvised, Made Up. The Irish Giant is a more conventional exercise in story-telling, a devised piece using a cast of three, some musical instruments (including a miniature piano) and a number of charming animated sequences. There’s plenty of appealing detail – Neil Haigh, as a tipsy Byrne, soothes himself with anachronistic snatches of 'Live Forever' by Oasis – as well as some playful use of stage illusion, but at times there’s a failure of integration between the various methods of narration.

The ideological rift between John and his brother William, a fellow doctor, is rather skimmed over and all the Enlightenment wrangling over the seat of the soul gets a bit lost. As with simple8’s attempt to stage The Four Stages of Cruelty, there’s a struggle to convey the Hogarthian seethe and stink of eighteenth century London, though the chilly, brick space of the Vault, littered as it is with alarming pickled things in jars, is suitably atmospheric as a backdrop.

It’s a fascinating story, one that has already been explored with her characteristic lightness of touch by a pre-Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel in The Giant, O’Brien; Hunter is a compelling figure who indirectly provided the inspiration for the characters of Drs Doolittle and Jekyll, but the potential emotional power of Byrne and his plight is left untapped. There’s little sense of tension in the brief scene where Byrne and Hunter meet and the potentially intriguing relationship between Byrne and Harrison - Hunter’s morally ambiguous Artful Dodger-esque assistant, paid by his boss to shadow the giant in his last days – is snuffed out just as it starts to become interesting.

The company - Haigh, Brian Logan and Alex Murdoch, who also directs - combine considerable charm with evident passion for the material and Rebecca Hurst’s animations are appealing and playful. The folky musical sequences, composed by Daniel Marcus Clark, are particularly well-delivered, and there's something enormously likeable about the whole exercise - but none of it quite knits together, the threads are left dangling.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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