You enter The Vault at The Southwark Playhouse and instantly you are transplanted to another time, another London. It feels like the early 19th Century city that the Enlightenment knew so well. The conduit into this era is The Irish Giant.
The cold air rising from the stone floor and the damp bricks keeping out any source of light call to a time where the city had a very dark underbelly. Three actors in surgeons’ costume greet you and rock ‘n’ roll music plays overhead. The tone is fun, but the atmosphere is anxious. Juxtaposed against the dank prison like cells there is something a bit off, something menacing and lurking under the façade of merriment.
Cartoon de Salvo created The Irish Giant as a new devised show, which is their first to be based on a true story. The Irish Giant explores the relationship of Charles Byrne, an eight-foot tall Irishman, who was a phenomenon of the day and John Hunter, a London surgeon obsessed with studying abnormal bodies, specifically the cadavers of these abnormal beings.
Cartoon de Salvo bills their theatre as the sort that “wears its heart on its sleeve, that like as adventure and that never forgets […] the audience.” And, this is evident in their immediate interaction with the theatregoers entering the venue, using improvised callouts to set the tone. It is evocative, it is provocative, and it is innovative.
Neil Haigh, Brian Logan and Alex Murdoch are the three actors that take on the role of a dozen or so characters, and effortlessly create this sordid world of deceit, manipulation and fear. The most gut wrenching performance came from Neil Haigh who took on the challenge of portraying all eight-feet of Charles Byrne. An amazing naiveté centered this actor in his role of a young country boy thrust into the spotlight of London’s freak show circuit. An Irish Catholic, Charles fights with much difficulty to discover where his soul will end up upon his inevitable death. As the play progresses we see Charles become weaker and creep toward death’s door, alone in a big city, so far from his family. A young man, marginalized for his anomalies, left to die with so many questions unanswered.
This sympathetic giant is juxtaposed amazingly against Brian Logan’s surgeon, the obsessive John Hunter. Hunter is menacing and will go to great lengths to procure the most bizarre and abnormal bodies for his research. His obsession and desire for Charles seems strong enough to kill the broken young giant.
The play brings up big questions about the ethics of modern medicine, society’s treatment of the designated abnormal, but most poignantly it begs the audience to question what becomes of us upon death. Do we have a soul? If so where is it located? And, most importantly where does it eventually end up?
Brilliantly designed with amazing videography feature throughout the production, this play is well worth your time. Cartoon de Salvo has created a brilliant piece that takes an inherently theatrical history and offers a beautiful humanity to it.
Performed at Southwark Playhouse until the 9th June.