Writer: Matt Hartley
Director: Adele Thomas
Reviewer: Sophia Moss
Picture this: you live in a small village surrounded by moors, woods and streams. A deadly, contagious illness is spreading through your community, but you can’t tell if you have caught it until a few days after infection. Do you stay in your village to avoid spreading the illness to neighbouring towns, or do you try to escape and risk hundreds, if not thousands, of lives?
This is what happened in Eyam, part of The Peak District, in 1665-1666. The villagers decided to quarantine themselves to avoid spreading the illness. Over 260 villagers, at least a third of the population, died within a year. Eyam, a new play by Matt Hartley, tells the story of Eyam’s villagers.
Reverend William Mompesson (Sam Crane) and his wife arrive in Eyam and discover that the previous reverend has been hung from a tree for ‘stealing’. The little village is far from sleepy; fights keep breaking out, families are in constant conflict, the wealthy landowner Philip Sheldon is a money-hungry villain and the puritanical Thomas Stanley keeps threatening to take over the parish. Initially set up as a medieval soap opera, things take a turn when one wife’s desire to have a dress made for her to seduce her husband results in a special cloth arriving from Plague-infested London.
Shakespeare’s Globe, with its three-story building and stage areas separated by an audience-sized gap, is perfect for the play. The set already has a distinctive medieval vibe and small design choices, like the increasing mounds of earth to represent graves, makes it easy to visualise the town, especially as the characters hold up a mini replica at the beginning and end of the play.
Performers dressed as plague doctors (beaky faces and all) enter to show when the plague has arrived (they come with the infected cloth, walking in slow, ominous steps and singing a ghostly hymn), they continue to appear whenever someone is about to die, and they stand among the audience in the upper rows to sing and observe. Their timing is especially poignant if you know the story of Eyam.
The play followers the villagers as a collective, but it also tells their individual stories. One of the saddest examples is Emott Sydall (Norah Lopez-Holden), who was about to elope with Rowland Torre (Luke MacGregor, a baker. When the plague spreads, Emott and Rowland meet on the edge of town and, standing at a distance to avoid spreading the plague, plan their future together. Emott sadly dies, while Rowland continues to go to their spot to wait for her. Norah (Emott) gives a touching performance as a young, feisty girl in love and we want her to survive, but we know she won’t.
While inconsistent with the true story of Eyam, Hartley’s version of Edward Cooper (Luke MacGregor) and George Viccars (Jordan Metcalfe) is also touching and sad. Portrayed as a budding homosexual romance, their future is sadly cut short when the plague kills both men in quick succession. Edward Coopers death scene is illustrated by the actor wearing a red dress made from the infected cloth and dancing in a trance, eyes unseeing, until his dress falls away to reveal lesions all over his body. The scene reflects the plague fever and the personal loss the character is experiencing. Edwards mother (Sirine Saba), who to this point was harsh and strict, gives a strong and believable performance as a heartbroken mother who still doesn’t lose her no-nonsense approach to life.
You wouldn’t think a play about deadly illnesses could be that funny, but humour is necessary in tragedy. There is a lot of humour in Eyam, from the early interactions with the villagers to the height of the plague when the local gravedigger Howard Ward) accidently buries Unwin (Oliver Ryan), the village drunk, alive.
Eyam may be a little lost on people who don’t know its history and it’s hardly a feel-good romp, but it has powerful writing, great actors and it makes you think. If you’re okay with developing a disturbing new obsession with the history of the plague, don’t miss this show.
Runs until 13 October 2018 | Image: Marc Brenner