Shakespeare’s Globe – until 13 October 2018
Eyam, the final production of The Globe’s summer season, drags in the autumn with a grim tale of human endurance and sacrifice, reimagining for the stage the true story of a plague-ridden parish in 1655. Written by Peak District native Matt Hartley, who grew up in a village next to Eyam, his newly-commissioned play remembers a community in crisis, isolated in ‘a place no map will ever know’.
When new arrivals the Rev William Mopesson (Sam Crane) and Katherine Mopesson (Priyanga Burford) take over the local church, they discover a village full of fighting and fornication. Unwelcome but ambitious to prove himself, William makes it his task to guide the parish, despite his inability to pronounce its name.
Often set straight by his better half (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-yam’ not ‘Eye-ham’), Priyanga Burford’s performance as Katherine remains the head and heart of the play as she mediates between her husband and the locals. An ungracious, squabbling rabble – partly inspired by British politics at the time of writing, says Hartley – the people of Eyam are a community divided by class and land ownership.
Adrian Bower brings a love-to-hate sliminess as the money-laden Philip Sheldon, who would rather drop his trousers for a big estate than for his wife, Elizabeth Sheldon (Zora Bishop). Sound performances follow from villagers John Hancock (John Paul Connolly), the vile John Sydall (Will Keen) and love-struck couple, Emmott Sydall (Norah Lopez-Holden) and Rowland Torre (Luke MacGregor). Confusingly, there are three Elizabeths in total – although the longer the play goes on, the less it seems to matter who is who.
Over an hour into the play and the bubonic plague is still to make an appearance. Hooded reapers stalk the stage and bad omens scream Black Death.
Referred to as crows, Designer Hannah Clark’s reapers are perhaps the most striking aspect of the production.
They appear like some eerie cross-breed between corvid and masked plague doctor.
But while their silent presence is constant and threatening, the absence of the main event leaves the audience craving buboes, pustules, vomiting and death’s icy grip.
A graphic reveal elicits gasps as a subplot about gay lovers abruptly collides with the outbreak of the disease.
Director Adele Thomas provides focus to an otherwise sprawling narrative, bringing out the best from a promising script.
Marital beds turn to death beds and the stage transforms into a mass grave. Through Emmott’s professions of love, Hartley wonders whether words can live for eternity.
Hartley delves into 17th Century England to ask questions of community and national identity, offering up unity and endurance as consolation for difficult times.
Gallows humour, tricksters and a whistling gravedigger proffer dark comedy and light relief in quick turns.
And, as the dead begin to outnumber the living, the living are buried alive by their own.
For all its talk of unity and endurance, Eyam’s three hour-long performance lacks direction and delivers sporadically.
Sam Crane closes the play as he lists from memory all those who lost their lives to the 1655 outbreak, ending with a surprisingly moving and enduring act of remembrance.
Eyam runs in rep at Shakespeare’s Globe until October 13.
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