Like us, the 16th-century Paduans worried about the unauthorised use of knives on their persons; unlike us, they also worried about this happening after they died. The title character of Tony Ramsay's play is Andreas Vesalius, who defied church and state and the repugnance of the populace (who believed bodies should remain in one piece, ready for the resurrection) to dissect and examine corpses. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the result of his studies, gave medical students a more accurate map of the body than Galen, whose vivisection of dogs and monkeys in the 2nd century had remained the standard work.
But Ramsay aims to do more than portray the struggles of an intellectual rebel. His play seeks to demonstrate the limits of intellect and to inquire into the morals and vision of those wielding the knife of inquiry. But, in doing so, The Anatomist becomes a rather lumpy hybrid of two works: those which ask if the bold advances of science or politics can improve the world while its people remain foolish and sinful, and those, of a more recent type, which subject past heroics to present-day cynicism.
Ivan Cutting's production, for the Eastern Angles company, creates a pungent Renaissance atmosphere, dense with mud and blood. The acting, with one exception, ranges from competent to, in the case of Tom Marshall as Vesalius and Timothy Speyer as the thug, compelling. But the play fails to achieve a strong focus, with Vesalius engaged in a double tug-of-war, with not only the authorities but his own assistant, a young Dutch artist. We ostensibly learn, from an undressing scene, that the artist is a woman but this is not a Crying Game moment: the actress' glaringly feminine movements are even less convincing in establishing a male character than her pencilled-on moustache.
The play also has too many lines that, in their triteness and anachronism, hardly suit a work about discovery and that pander to those pleased by facile ironies. They are as jarring as the artist's remark to Vesalius that they are calling his anatomy book a future best-seller down the pub.
To 22 July, then touring. 01473 211 498; www.easternangles.co.ukReuse content