The Anatomist

Tony Ramsay
Eastern Angles Theatre Company
Coggeshall Grange Barn & touring
(2006)

Production photograph

In sixteenth century Padua, Andreas Vesalius (Tom Marshall) is trying to discover the truth about the structure of the human body, approaching the dissection of any available corpse with a seemingly callous detachment from the individual who has recently vacated it. But his approach is challenged by a young artist, Titian's pupil Stephan van Calcar (Nadia Morgan), who arrives demanding to help Vesalius with his important work. But Van Calcar is horrified that Vesalius takes sick people into his home apparently to guarantee a supply of fresh cadavers, and he tries to impose his own values on the situation, befriending an ailing Scottish woman (Veronica Hempsey) in Vesalius' household, and promising her a decent burial untouched by Vesalius' knife.

Meanwhile two travellers, Glov (Timothy Speyer) and Arial (William Gregory), are approaching Padua: Glov a whoring ruffian with a terrible pain in the guts, and Arial his sidekick. On the journey they encounter the enigmatic, religious Emilia (Grainne Gillis), who is instantly a sex object to Glov, but intriguing to Arial. The robust antics and language of the pair contrast with the intense seriousness of the anatomist and artist as their paths and destinies slowly converge.

The gashed, bloodspattered curtain that is the backdrop to Rosie Alabaster's simple wood-floored set vigorously symbolises not just the anatomical investigations of the play, but also its uncompromising action and language. In presenting the quest for the interior of the human body, Ramsay's play equally examines some of the less fathomable areas of the human mind, and its inability to see the truth that lies before it. The Scottish woman, calling van Calcar 'hen' right from the start, seems the only one to have penetrated the artist's gender disguise, and her magnificent angry apologia for the wornout beauty of her fifty-year-old body is a highlight of the first half of the play.

Vesalius himself admits, when he sees van Calcar's drawings of the body, that, even though he knows Galen's notions to be false, he has still been unable to shake himself free from a millennium and a half of the Greek's influence. And it's Arial, the unquestioning follower, who at last speaks up for the here and now, deciding that Glov's 'journeying' has been nothing but false hope. Ramsay's play implies a link between the medieval and modern mind-sets that hinder our ability to recognise what is the case; that venturing into uncharted territory is futile if our minds cannot be free of outworn notions.

Van Calcar's efforts to bury the deceased Scot fail, and s/he realises her own fallibility when Vesalius explains that he would never have used a woman's corpse for dissection in any case. His practice is to substitute a woman's body for a man's, dissecting the male and burying the female. And when Glov finally arrives in Padua, it is his fate to become the subject of Vesalius' long-awaited public dissection - an outcome bizarrely appropriate for a man who doesn't balk at necrophilia.

The Anatomist is a deeply satisfying production. Energetically directed by Ivan Cutting, the strong cast are equal both to the robust comedy and to the philosophical debate. It is to Tony Ramsay's credit that he has managed to embed such a wealth of ideas in this boldly entertaining play.

Reviewer: Jill Sharp