When the word ‘plague’ is mentioned, the chances are your first thoughts will be of the Black Death or the Great Plague that afflicted London in 1665. What you may not know is that, in the same year, an outbreak of plague made itself known in the small Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced like ‘Ian’ but with an ‘m’, for sake of clarity) – and what followed was one of the most inspiring demonstrations of the strength of the human spirit. Rather than relying solely on prayer to guide them through this “challenge”, the village was kept under rolling quarantine and several other practical measures (mostly designed to minimise physical contact) were put into place for the duration of the outbreak.
When Rev. William Mompesson and his wife Katherine arrive to occupy the vicarage in Eyam, all the signs seem to be telling them to turn around and go back to Scarborough: the previous incumbent was hanged as a thief, and there seem to be crows everywhere… In spite of this they decide to stay, though their presence isn’t particularly welcomed by the residents, most of whom would prefer their banished former Puritan minister to return instead. He duly arrives, to bury his late wife, as does tailor George Viccars, looking to find some lodgings while he courts new business in the area. Because of the lack of trust show in him by the villagers, when William recognises plague symptoms he decides to keep quiet in case it’s a false alarm – but everyone’s soon faced with a heartbreaking choice when they realise the best course of action against the disease…
Coincidentally running at the same time as the return of The Plague to the Arcola Theatre, Matt Hartley’s play is the final opening of the Globe’s summer season, and another piece of brand new writing that’s being tested out there. It has been programmed for a mere ten performances up until the penultimate day of the season. It sits slightly away from most of the rest of the plays performed, featuring no Emilia and not linking specifically to any of the Shakespeare plays on offer, but it definitely stands out as one of the best productions there this year. Be warned that it is another long one, which can be a test of endurance at the Globe, but it is well worth it to be part of this moving story.
I think it does need to be a bit shorter, though it would probably need to consider how the play should be focused in order to do that; there aren’t many places where something can easily be cut without having a knock-on effect later in the play. One clear moment that does need work is the final scene, where Mompesson wishes for all who lost their lives to be remembered – I would advocate splitting the burden between all of the cast, perhaps dotted around the entire theatre (as in other parts of the play), to provide variety as much as to take less time, if the content of this scene is to remain unchanged. It may be that some ruthless amendments will need to be made prior to a new production, and this part could be edited out entirely.
What is great about the play is how it looks at religion and community. It powerfully demonstrates what, for me, is probably the only really good thing about religion (aside from the beautiful historic buildings): its ability to provide people with true comfort. This is what having faith should be about, as opposed to the bigotry & warmongering that is as prominent as it ever was – and the incredible thing is that it didn’t prevent the village from coming up with some practical interventions to try and keep the disease at bay. The widespread devastation that could have been wrought had they panicked or solely relied upon prayer is almost too massive to comprehend. What also made it work was their spirit of togetherness and finding strength in community (something that 17.4 million people in the UK could’ve done with remembering two years ago).
Hannah Clark’s design ensure the yard is made use of, with a couple of jagged paths protruding out from the main stage, which often leads to the actors mingling with the crowd. The performance space is covered in a sort of black gravel, reminding us of both the village’s industry and the stench of death that lingers over it. The costume design also reflects this, keeping in mind their recent affiliation with Puritanism; the villagers frequently see “crows”, but we see them as the uniform of the quack doctor, appearing almost as angels of death with their haunting singing and gliding movements.
The company is made up of the entire cast of The Winter’s Tale, with the addition of Sam Crane and John Paul Connolly – I know it’s not unusual at all to perform two plays in rep, but when they are such extended & involved plays I can’t help but be impressed (they’re also due to perform both on Sunday 7 October).
Rose Wardlaw definitely stands out as the ghoulish Harriet Stubbs, always the outsider and revelling in the newfound supply of dead bodies to play with; based both on this performance and her turn as Mamillius, I’d love to see her interpretation of Puck some day. Oliver Ryan is almost unrecognisable as Harriet’s sometime mentor Unwin, and seemingly battling through with one arm in a sling. Norah Lopez-Holden impresses again, with a spirited portrayal of the brave Emmott Sydall, and Howard Ward provides some great moments of dark comedy as whistling sexton Marshall Howe.
Annette Badland and Sam Crane make excellent sparring partners as Thomas Stanley and William Mompesson’s relationship begins as mutual antagonism, though they also come together for the sake of the village. Crane’s performance is particularly affecting, especially as William begins to settle in Eyam and finds himself relied upon as part of village life.
My verdict? A celebration of the strength of human spirit in the face of seemingly impossible odds, highlighting the power & comfort of community – a stirring watch.
Eyam runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 October 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.