Irish Giant

Cartoon de Salvo
Southwark Playhouse

Neil Haigh as Charles Byrne Credit: Edmund Collier
Brian Logan in the Irish Giant Credit: Edmund Collier

Cartoon de Salvo sets their adaptation of the real-life story of Irish giant Charles Byrne against the background of a historical debate between religious morality and medical progressiveness.

If polarisation can pose as potent theatrical device, framing a dramaturgy for a story that's slipped the theatrical canon, it feels somewhat exhausted in Irish Giant. Undecidedly fluctuating between character portraits and narrative playfulness, the production teases theatrical moments out of a forcefully linear story; in its reductive structure, it displaces details for atmosphere to often great effect, but falls under the weight of its ambiguities.

Logan, Murdoch and Haigh cast us as a group of novice anatomy students in the school of controversial surgeon John Hunter; this serves as a framework to immerse us in the story of Charles Byrne. A dead Hunter lies on the table, surrounded by threatening medical instruments, the three get ready to perform a dissection of all his internal organs. His last wishes stipulate that they search his entire body in order to find whether there is a materiality to the soul.

Fading back in time, we meet Byrne in his arrival to London, trying to chase away a Hunter eager to purchase his body for science. His giganticism however is set to kill him early, and upon Byrne's relentless refusal to accept a dissection after his death, Hunter pays his apprentice to follow him until his last days and retrieve his body.

Irish Giant flirts with theatrical paradigms throughout, be it in the casual engagement with the audience throughout the show or the self-awareness and transparency of theatrical illusions, from disappearance acts to faking Byrne's real height. In addition, the three performers remain on last name basis when not performing specific characters. This playfulness is more humorous than conceptual; its inconsistency means that it doesn't quite find a home onstage.

Animations complement theatrical storytelling devices and, despite their visual effectiveness, they seem to exhaust the visual landscape and strong atmosphere created onstage. The plot remains unsettled, located neither in the precision of historical theatricality nor grounded in traditional storytelling. Despite the sharpness of the characters and charm of the performers, it's hard to pinpoint what the narrative actually explores, and this fluctuation makes the entire production wander.

This second production marking their fifteenth birthday, following the all-improv show Made Up, Irish Giant plays on the company's staple theatrical language: an aesthetic that hints at a historical period with deliberate imprecision but a sense of nostalgia, characters teased rather than embodied, and a structure that invites improvisation and a sense of playfulness which makes for an energetic performance. Cartoon de Salvo inhabits the stage with undeniable candidness and charm, constructing a world rich with atmosphere that operates within the parameters of traditional storytelling. The added element of live music enhances this, adding subtle nuances to the narrative.

Irish Giant is an undecided production peppered with engaging moments of pure theatricality. Haigh in particular brings to life a Byrne with a heart as giant as his stature, and a naivety that, despite its cartoonish mimetic, builds a complex character. The arguments and snippets of dramatic information reduce the religion / science debate which frames the story to a simplistic set of problematics somewhat superficial in their engagement and, because of its indecisiveness, the production doesn't manage its content with particular dramaturgical clarity. That being said, Irish Giant‘s patchiness isn't altogether destructive, and within the realm of storytelling, Cartoon de Salvo paints an evocative character portrait with a lot of heart.

Reviewer: Diana Damian

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