“I thought you were here to save, instead you bring the end.”
Matt Hartley’s Eyam tells the story of a community squeezing itself until it can barely breathe. Based on the true story of the 1665 to 1666 self-quarantine of a Peak District village to prevent the spread of plague, its characters are either real people or composites of them.
Hartley presents a vision of Eyam as a frontier, a There Will Be Blood (2007) in the north of England, with village politics made mighty and the violence of competing strains of ambition. As the deaths pile up, there are desperate attempts to find a moral reason for the disease, as an already isolated world becomes uncomfortably smaller. It’s strange to find yourself wanting to hear more about the squabbles between the clergy of this period or to really get into the nitty-gritty of the landed gentry’s misuse of the leadmining poor, but it’s hard to get enough of the real-life circumstances here.
In the hands of director Adele Thomas, the humour of Hartley’s dialogue and the bleakness of his setting are brought out with excellent support by Hannah Clark’s design: though the characters wear near-identical monochrome costumes, completely covering their bodies, individuality persists. No two bonnets are exactly the same. Muddy villagers scuttle around a black stage which reaches out to the audience with two inversely pointed runways, not unlike the splayed legs of a dead deer we see later. Death is to occupy more and more space, as seven little houses around a central church are removed from the stage at the beginning for everything to happen. That is, for the digging of graves.
From the outset, the Reverend William Mompesson and his wife Katherine are seeing crows. Specifically, crows with the ‘beak masks’ of plague doctors, but longer and more downturned, their appearance often marked by high choral hymning in one of the high points of Orlando Gough’s original composition.
Priyanga Burford is a standout as Katherine Mompesson, determined and considered where her husband, Sam Crane’s Rev. William Mompesson, is nervous. His voice tends to shake, but he shows his backbone in his dealing with the crisis and decision to ally himself with his rival, the Puritan minister Thomas Stanley. When Annette Badland first comes out as this man, so much has been said about him that such a small figure is completely unexpected. Badland plays a fierce man reduced by the loss of his wife just before the plague’s outbreak; from seeing him as simply a dangerous “dissenter”, William begins to address him as “Reverend”. He needs him on side, and they’re joined in their concern for the village and dislike of the landowning bully Philip Sheldon (Adrian Bower).
It’s a large cast, all (with the exception of Sam Crane) also in The Winter’s Tale earlier in the season, and all having a lot of fun with Hartley’s language. Norah Lopez-Holden does a good job as the star-crossed and independent Emmott Sydall, and the swearing throughout soars.
Despite the content warning on the Globe’s website, there’s no problem with gore here. There’s no real physical horror: characters are struck suddenly, and are dead the next instant. It’s also a little unfortunate to have the gay characters killed first, as much as I appreciate Hartley’s inclusion of them as part of his depiction of the epidemic’s beginnings.
In this telling, the disaster starts as a result of infected fabric bought from London, delivered to tailor George Viccars (Jordan Metcalfe, in loaded early scenes with Luke MacGregor’s Edward Cooper) to make a dress for Sheldon’s wife. The two priests condemn the Sheldons for this and other excesses, but the final song’s message of how rich men cannot protect their health with their money falls flat. The character survives, like the wealthy do, precisely because of his money. The play indicts Sheldon’s absent patron, Sir Saville, but neither suffer, as they didn’t in real life.
Even besides the similarities in Hartley’s narrative to Don Taylor’s The Roses of Eyam, the play offers few surprises, which at three hours long becomes a bit trying. The sheer strength of the real-life story warrants it being taken in a bolder direction, because it really is incredible. When the seven little houses and church are finally returned onstage during the ending song, we see tiny lights shining at the windows. The village lives on.
Eyam is on until 13 October 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe. Click here for more details.