It takes guts
Viewing the instruments: a medical and musical collaboration by Dr Peter Isaacs, Philip Parr and Jane Wildgoose:
Marin Marais: Le Tableau de l'Opération de la Taille
Rachel Stott: Instruments and Bodies
Graham Waterhouse: Un Tombeau pour Dame Obsolète for Viola de Gamba, Harpsichord and Speaker
Eddie McGuire: The Healing Cut
Martyn Jaques: Fear
Paul Barker: Risk = About 1%
Philip Parr (director/Presenter of Medical History), Dr Peter Isaacs, Jonathan Tillbrook (harpsichord), Mark Levy (bass viol), Ashley Solomon (bass flute), Luke Noyes (Librarian), Kevin West (Librarian)
Marin Marais' Le Tableau de l'Opération de la Taille, published in 1725, is an extreme oddity, a short work for bass viol that explicitly represents an operation to remove stones from the bladder. Surgery was a public sport at the time, and the piece might have been inspired by a high profile event at court. Viewing the instruments, which has been touring in the UK, is a collaboration (funded by the Arts Council and several medical bodies) between artist Jane Wildgoose, director Philip Parr and gastroenterologist Peter Isaacs. It includes Marin's work and five commissioned new works, of similar length and for the same instruments, in a theatrical meditation on the operation. The performers, including the instrumentalists, read documents and stage monologues and discussions, covering the history of lithotomy, medicine at court, modern operating procedures, analogies between the viol and the human body, and NHS waiting lists.
The set, with decorated harpsichord, is coolly elegant in black and white, but it was at times difficult to decide whether the performance was simply over-cool or moribund. The subject matter, which is certainly fascinating, emerged as cerebral and inward looking. This is probably inevitable to some extent: the work at the centre is a kind of drama of subjectivity, the interplay in a single voice between the experience of being a patient and watching (or reflecting on) the operation at the same time. The new musical works all explicitly explored subjectivity and intersubjectivity to some extent. But the speakers and actors were all rather too understated to make an impact, and at times wooden. Dr Isaacs, in particular, spoke as if struggling to remember his lines, although what he said was often tantalising, for example, his comparison between using an endoscope and playing a musical instrument. But then the video of the endoscope exploring someone's innards hinted at the alternative extreme, the depiction of cut flesh and blood, and made you rather glad they hadn't done that. Nevertheless, there was little sense of danger when looking at the first principles of life and pain.
Still, there was definitely something here, if not the Peter Greenaway-style exploration of blood and breath that there might have been. The instrumental works, and especially Marin's, were eloquently performed. Most explored the speaking voice of the viol and flute in an extension Marin's ideas, although all of them seemed to lean a little too heavily on texts. Martyn Jaques' ebulliently anxious study of the patient's fear of the operation perhaps needed the composer's distinctive soprano to give an edge to its Sprechstimme. If the experience of the performance itself was odd, there was much to take away, including a nice blue marble the size of a small gallstone.