Athina Vahla’s Wrestling an Angel was an ambitious site-specific event in two parts, the first at the Old Operating Theatre next to Guy’s Hospital near London Bridge, the second two weeks later in a former abattoir near the meat market in Smithfield. The production was allocated £75,000, the largest single amount of funding for a dance project under the new Grants for the Arts system at Arts Council England. This, combined with the unusual venues for this unusual venture, heightened the sense of anticipation.
That sense was almost palpable at the beginning of both events, for the public had to pre-book a time slot and wait in a foyer with a strictly limited groups before being guided into the performance itself. In those chilly antechambers you feel as anxious as a human specimen in a waiting room – entirely appropriate for performances that take us first into an operating theatre, then an abattoir. Yet in both places the dread and anticipation gave way to bafflement and a mounting sense of frustration – and so reinforced a simple truth that must vex arts administrators the world over: there is no straightforward connection budget and artistic quality.
a grisly repository of medical history, part chamber of horrors, part old curiosity shop
The Old Operating Theatre is a grisly repository of medical history, part chamber of horrors, part old curiosity shop. To reach it, you climb a claustrophobic church tower staircase and pass through a hallway stacked high with the memorabilia of pre-anaesthetic surgery. Then the performance begins. 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. In the gloomy operating theatre itself, lit like painting by an old master of an anatomy lesson, a man in bandages. He is 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 attentions towards each other; and then quietens again as the woman, like a nightmare vision, pounces onto the patient’s chest and whispers into his ear. In the final scene, the woman is cased in glass like an exhibit. 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.
It’s all vaguely atmospheric and also completely mystifying. Who is ‘Jemima’, referred to by the surgeon figure in the first scene but not mentioned again? In the main scene the spookily scratchy soundtrack gives way to an equally scratchy old recording of ‘Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps’ – in Spanish. You can only think: why, why, why?
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
Part 1 could do with being more crypt-like and a lot 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. No such complaints, though, about the marvellously morbid museum itself: its exhibits of medical instruments and fascinating text panels are more ghoulishly fascinating than the performance.
Part 2 is larger and longer, but no less bewildering. Instead of the clutter of the museum, the abattoir is a series of empty interconnecting rooms, lit fitfully as you pass through them. In one dark quarter, a woman swivels and gasps before giving vent to a banshee wail. A figure in white – surgeon’s coat or butcher’s overalls? – guides us through to the next room, lurching uncomfortably from doom-laden commentary to fairground sideshow patter. He places glass orbs onto a woman’s prone body, pointing to a wall map behind him, reciting dates and figures that seem to be related to a war campaign.
It doesn’t get any clearer. There’s a model building filled with model animals. There’s a puzzling though captivating shadow puppet show, depicting a boy who has his heart cut out. There’s an old couple waltzing slowly in the gloom, and a military man who’s given a shave and a glass of wine while a legion of dancers do some drills. He wears a stuffed raven on his arm, and recites some of that Biblical verse about looking through a glass darkly. But the performance is already opaque, and I’m with the raven: nevermore!
Some of the characters from the Operating Theatre – the surgeon, the woman in a glass cabinet – make cameo reappearances, by way of continuity. And finally, here’s the bandaged guy from Part 1, grappling with a soldier. Is this the Wrestling of an Angel? My guess is as good as anyone’s. By way of explanation, if not encouragement, a baleful voice informs us: “Time passes. That is all. Make sense of it who may.”
The problem is that the welter of images are too insubstantial to stand on their own, and the links between them are too tenuous to accumulate any lasting effect, even on an unconscious or visceral level. The piece may be brimming with a billion possible ideas about death and war, science and slaughter, body and soul – but they seem only to exist inside the choreographer’s head. Wandering around with pen and notebook in hand, I feel like a detective dutifully taking notes in the hope of solving a mystery where the trail has long gone cold, leaving only a location and a smattering of clues that no longer make sense.