Writer: Christine Foster
Director: Adam Bambrough
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Science and superstition have long been seen as opposite ends of the spectrum and, since the Enlightenment, belief in the tried and tested certainties of science have largely won out. But not entirely as centuries-old superstitions still exist largely because human nature doesn’t change – the fear of death in particular continues to challenge our rationality.
Christine Foster’s new play Four Thieves’ Vinegar is set at almost exactly the time where a greater scientific understanding of the world was beginning to emerge, yet among the populace superstitions persisted. It’s 1664 and a few years into the reign of Charles II when a dangerous and virulent plague strikes London. In the depths of Newgate prison apothecary, Matthias is serving a sentence for debt when Jennet, a scared young woman pleading pregnancy to avoid the noose is temporarily placed in his cell along with her friend, Hannah, a nurse. As a third of London lay dying, Matthias believes he can make a potion that will cure the plague and save this little group.
Foster’s new play is a window into the past, effectively connecting with the fear and desperation of those facing a seemingly unstoppable pestilence. Its premiere in the basement of Baron’s Court Theatre could not be better suited with its tiny stage perfectly suggesting a small cell, while the underground feel suiting the conditions of a 17th Century jail. Sally Hardcastle’s set feels almost as if it has been discovered in situ by the cast, which reflects the play’s concerns with confinement and mortality.
Throwing together four different types, Foster uses the varying educative and worldly experience of her characters to propel the story as the science-minded Matthias (Nick Howard-Brown) clings to hope of a workable solution to the crisis, while the more cynical Hannah (Pip Henderson) takes a practical and more cynical approach, accepting life for what it is. It creates a number of mostly unexpected twists and turns as various dramas are slowly revealed to the audience, which hold the attention, as do the changing loyalties as various teams are formed and rearranged.
Yet, at 90 minutes without an interval, Four Thieves’ Vinegar sometimes digresses into lengthy conversations that don’t always propel the plot or give character insight. Foster is clearly fascinated by the stories of this era but her purpose in writing it is not always as clear as it could be – is it to highlight the savagery of a disease that ignored class boundaries, or is she using the prison setting to highlight the irony of so much innocent death in a world obsessed with capital punishment? At one point Hannah says “science is merely a shadow that follows the truth about, it is never the truth itself”, a speech that could be discussed more substantially.
While occasionally everyone is a little stagey, Howard-Brown is a thoughtful Matthias enthused by his potential discovery but shocked and cowed by his encounter with the effects of plague. However, it is the female roles that dominate and Kate Huntsman starts as an innocent and terrified Jennet offering her baby to anyone who’ll help her, but, as events unfold, a darker side emerges which Huntsman conceals well. But it is the worldly Hannah who is easily the most interesting character, owing much to Henderson’s feisty and stoic performance, proving Hannah is more than a match for any man in the room.
Foster has created a world for her characters in which the spectre of death hangs over them either from disease or punishment, and the way in which hope ebbs and flows throughout the show is one of its highlights. It may need a slightly clearer focus in places, but with its apocalyptic descriptions of plague-ridden London Four Thieves’ Vinegar is a vivid and sympathetic insight into a period before science had all the answers.
Runs until 26 March 2017 | Image: Cinzia D’Ambrosi