You climb a claustrophobic church tower staircase, pass through a hallway stacked high with the memorabilia of pre-anaesthetic surgery, and wait outside a turret door with the quiet anxiety of a visitor in a hospital waiting room.
a ghoulish repository of medical history, part chamber of horrors, part old curiosity shop
This is the opening of a two-part event, Wrestling an Angel, directed and choreographed by Athina Vahla. The setting is the Old Operating Theatre in London Bridge, a ghoulish repository of medical history, part chamber of horrors, part old curiosity shop.
In the first tableau a woman cradles a glass bowl pulsing with projected images of the valves and vessels of a beating heart. A man looms above a child-sized operating table and displays a series of medical and domestic utensils: forceps, fork, scissors, spoon. You move on to the gloomy operating theatre – spectator stands ranged around a surgeon’s table – lit like an old master painting of an anatomy lesson. Here lies a man in bandages, attended by three medics who finger the line of a vein along his forearm, or pinpoint a suture on his skull. The action builds as the patient thrashes stiffly and the surgeons turn their attention towards each other, then quietens again as the woman pounces on to the patient’s chest and whispers in his ear, like a succubus.
The woman, cased in glass, is the centrepiece of the final scene. She unravels a ribbon from inside her robe and stretches it around the cabinet frame, as if using her own vein to measure the dimensions of her glass coffin.
could do with being more crypt-like and less cryptic
It’s all very atmospheric, but could do with being more crypt-like and less cryptic. Never quite chilling the blood nor setting it racing, it leaves you wanting either a more sustained piece of theatre, or a more macabre flourish of showmanship. As it is, the piece is carried by the marvellously morbid building itself. Part two runs next month in a disused abattoir; who knows what that will bring?