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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Matt Hartley’s Eyam the last Globe premiere this season is directed by Adele Thomas with a puritan scrubbed set by Hannah Clark. Orlando Gough’s gong-torn score directed by Jeremy Avis sings an iron rim round a self-sealed village, percussive, ritualised by tollings and broken out of by Emma Woods’ choreography. Till October 13th.


Matt Hartley’s Eyam might have been conceived for another theatre but thanks to Michelle Terry and others it finds its torch-lit ground here. The last Globe premiere this season is directed by Adele Thomas with a puritan scrubbed set by Hannah Clark, stark monochromes with brilliant bolts of cloth prefiguring virid blotches. There’s a bloodless deer for the manor, with rabbits skinned more viscerally. And black-cloaked faceless crows of death with vast beaks circling round the village, tread the stage’s edge. Eyam’s a Derbyshire community famed for tragically containing the Plague, ensuring it never spread.


But for eighty minutes what we anticipate doesn’t come. That’s one of Eyam’s strengths. Orlando Gough’s gong-torn score directed by Jeremy Avis sings an iron rim round a self-sealed village, percussive, ritualised by tollings and broken out of by Emma Woods’ choreography as people pop up unnervingly on the usual Globe platforms, out of cellarages or amongst groundlings. Even more, there’s rough music, torn from communal singing that at the last overwhelms you.


Hartley grew up next to the tragic village Eyam which through the initiative of the new vicar, William Mompesson cordons itself off so the 1665 plague doesn’t spread. Twenty-eight days without a death sounds the all-clear. It takes many months, and a snow storm across the stage marks even the cold’s inability to freeze it out.


It had come from flea-infested London cloth, in this version bought by a young wife – most gifted with Laura Rushton’s otherwise sober costumes – to entice her bored husband, Adrian Bower’s brutish Sheldon. Zora Bishop flounces Elizabeth Sheldon with savage entitlement in contrast to her role as hard-bitten Elizabeth Hancock later. They promptly leave. Eyam people in some cases with heartbreaking separations, decide very differently, on self-sacrifice.


That’s not how it starts. The Rev Shoreditch Adams, Mompesson’s predecessor is cornered and hanged for theft by Sheldon and townfolk. There’s an irony. Though Sheldon is like many a ‘free-miner’ of lead, able to challenge larger landowners legally with pooled resources and win a right to mine anywhere, Sheldon’s grown rich whilst others nearly starve. Given the generally Republican – you might say open – cast of mind here, and trauma from a war whose legacy was defeated, Eyam like other areas is at war with itself. Adams and his replacement the young Oxbridge Mompesson are appointed by a Sir who has no knowledge of the place, yet a deciding interest.


And Adams’ puritan, ejected predecessor, Thomas Stanley (no Rev. he) has returned to bury his wife of fifty years. He stays and over half the townsfolk hearken to him. Annette Badland’s dour, dogged honesty is shot through with sudden authority where needed in an unexpected alliance. Most of the cast come fresh from the Globe’s The Winter’s Tale, inhabiting the stage with the assurance of having trod it for several months as a company.


It doesn’t help that Mompesson’s a Yorkshireman, but Sam Crane’s initially underwhelmed, underwhelming Mompesson is accompanied by his slightly older wife, Katherine, Priyanga Burford’s incisive portrayal of a wife with heart and steeliness callow Mompesson lacks. Her presence anchors them as a couple. Crane’s portrayal though is deceptive as we discover.


Hartley’s decision to skein out all the complexities of relationships and overlapping language is brave and justified. Anyone hoping to see an arc along the lines of Neil Bartlett’s dramatization of Camus’ La Peste (revived at the Arcola after last year’s triumph) would miss the point. We have to care both for individuals and the nature of a conflict-riven village betrayed by London in more than one sense. Of course it’s topical. We have to understand what’s being destroyed as well as what might be saved and even renewed. For instance John Paul Connolly’s sterling John Hancock warns us of the serrated edge of decency, and its redemptions.


There are times though when in a play lasting three hours you realise it’s too much. A few judicious cuts have been made, and the dialogue’s handled so fast and indeed realistically that there’s occasionally a clash of voices where not everything’s clear. Despite the textual richness a little more from the first longer act might be pruned as the run proceeds. The second act and conclusion is so overwhelming that it deserves this.


In a fifteen-strong partly multi-roling company there’s a plethora of narratives Hartley’s patiently woven, then laid out in a shock of colour and death that hold attention. Like most of the actors mentioned Will Keen plays the one role: loud violent John Sydall who’s violently seen the light through Stanley, misses his wife Becci Gemmell’s Elizabeth who returns to her first love John Wilson (whom she’d once thought dead in the Civil War): Adrian Bower’s other role contrasts the brutish Sheldon with a warming steadfastness. Gemmell’s quiet adamantine in this role contrasts with loud land-hugging Mary Talbot.


It’s eldest daughter Emmott Sydall who provides the other major role. Norah Lopez-Holden lighting up the whole stage with superbly  punchy diction and a clarion you can thrill to, turns in perhaps the most memorable performance, alongside Burford. A life and love-force of one she nevertheless  orders Luke MacGregor’s fiancé Rowland Torre to stay the other side of the village boundary when they’re separated, having been dissevered by Mompersson’s hesitation over joining them in the face of a father’s opposition – something his wife shreds him for and which finally perhaps turns the prig into a primus inter pares. But for Emmott and Rowland it’s a legendary separation, greeting each other across the bank. It’s virtually impossible not to fall in love with Emmott Sydall – historically, and as realized by Hartley and Lopez-Holden.


Sirine Saba’s Mary Cooper is one of those tragic portrayals one misses because she’s so apparently unsympathetic in her cosseting and scolding her son Edward that you don’t realize this is to insulate him against loss. MacGregor’s other role has him attracted to new lodger tailor George Viccars (Jordan Metcalfe), who pushes him to freedom. The freedom the men win is astonishing. It culminates in Edward’s dance in an infected dress. Metcalfe shines too as the injured stuttering and selfless Francis Bockinge, who refuses his master Sheldon’s admonitions to escape and elects to stay and help. It’s a poignant vignette.


Oliver Ryan’s scheming Unwin, who’d fight for anyone or with anyone, seems an emanation of the plague, and is even buried. But Unwin, rather like a character in La Peste,  can never die of something like plague. From some angles the switch of body-bags is visible: this hardly detracts from the joke or Ryan’s skirling sardonic ring as he hobbles like a pestilence and commander of the crows he never sees.


Howard Ward’s whistling gravedigger Marshal Howe seems almost of the same cloth, but his gravedigger persona hides elements of pathos, digging his wife’s grave before the plague deeper than anyone else and prepared to dig Unwin’s in the shallowest. Ward’s a grim reaping delight here. He owns his tenuous code, even if it is to get a wife by any means. His early rub-ups with Crane’s Mompesson give the latter the first intimation of conflict and truth, but both eventually realize it’s to arm him.


Rose Whardlaw’s Harriet Stubbs though is amoral in the way an animal is, half-mad, screeching after a dying man for his ear, like some demented sylvan excavation or a lead chip sent flying. In contrast to the wonderfully centred vibrant Lopez-Holden, Whardlaw’s demotic glee is like a visible electron let loose on stage.


It’s the Mompessons though who have to persuade us. Burford does this. Crane for the first act navigates a man out of his depth until he hits a stride with Badland’s grudging respect. It’s the way crane builds Mompesson’s stature that confirms his won. If at first he doesn’t convince in projection and presence then something miraculous happens through the second act.


The end –  no spoilers here – is staggering. ‘Like nothing on earth, but is earth’ as poet Geoffrey Hill once put it. There’s a litany, and Crane’s Mompesson gets through this vocally faltering at certain  names, building like a memorial, not just like the 9/11 of recent years, but the mind-numbing harrowing loss of 277 of the 360 villagers whose lives Hartley ensures we’ve invested in.


And then the survivors pull out a rendition of Thomas Nashe’s ‘Farewell earth’s bliss’ from his 1592 work about the plague, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, recently mounted so powerfully in the Wanamaker by Edward’s Boys a year ago. ‘Brightness falls from the air/Queens have died young and fair… Lord have mercy on us.’ Gough’s raw harmonies underscore a devastation – and courage – almost unimaginable. Naturally it’s heart-stopping with an agency unique to the Globe.


One previous dramatization of these events stands out – The Roses of Eyam (1970) by the scandalously underrated Don Taylor who also directed a 1973 BBC adaptation. This work’s deservedly enjoyed long life on stage and as a set text, also focusing on divided politics with a haunting peripheral character. Hartley’s swirling, more visceral Eyam must have such a life too – and already possesses a miraculous importunity. Slightly pruned no doubt, but it rescores this history with a kind of wild justice. It’s a ringing, tolling end to a pioneering season.