Theatre in Wales

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Moving Large-Cast Acting and Fine Production Values

Louche Theatre: the Roses of Eyam

Louche Theatre , Morlan Centre, Aberystwyth , November 27, 2010
Louche Theatre: the Roses of Eyam by Louche Theatre Don Taylor's 1970 play about the voluntary self-isolation of the plague-struck Derbyshire village of Eyam had a distinguished run on its first outing. It was for a while eclipsed by another play about the plague. Peter Barnes' “Red Noses” set in fourteenth century France won the Olivier award for best play of its year. That year was 1985 and the play had a metaphorical power against the background of pre-AZT AIDS. “The Roses of Eyam” has a metaphorical force but it is a simpler one of sheer human impotence.

The period of the play, 1665-1666, is pre-Enlightenment, a century in which a monarch might still write a distinguished treatise on witchcraft. With medical knowledge non-existent- the cause of plague was finally identified in 1898- there is nothing to intervene between the texture of daily communal life and God's reckoning.

John Edwards' austere, unreconstructed Puritan Stanley even muses that perhaps the plague if allowed to spread into the wider world might just disperse itself. As for any notion of treatment “If the boils turn black” he says, “the best thing is get a spade and start digging.” A story is told of a great man, his family reduced, who digs his own grave, lines it with straw and lays himself in it.

Aberytwyth's Morlan Centre is an inspiring venture. Louche Theatre's Harry Durnall is as ever his own designer. For this production the audiences is spread out in a few rows around the edge of the performance space which comprises a thousand square feet. A centrally placed slate-grey cross eight feet high dominates. After the first deaths a trio of rough, rope-bound coffins lean up against one end of the space.

Cunningly a collection of the particular rounded Cardigan Bay stones are assembled around the crucifix. At the beginning of Act Two the villagers humming mournfully take the stones individually and place them in a circle at the audience's feet. The self-sealing off of the village is thus given brilliant visualisation.

The production starts audaciously. Denise Williams as “the Bedlam”, a Cassandra-cum-chorus figure, skips the entire semi-circle of the audience dropping petals at our feet. It is repeated after the interval by which time the falling petals have become emblematic of the toll of deaths.

A large cast in a large space means that the direction- Harry Durnall and Assistant Director Shelley Iles- can choreograph a range of different visual effects. Cowled figures in half-light circle a couple who are attempting to flee. The eerie sound of hissing accompanies the flight.

The dramatic turning-points are largely enacted by the lead players standing quite still. The language, reflecting the gravity of the theme, is delivered in clear, measured cadences. Emma Sims' Emmott has a speech which relates the deaths in her family one by one which leave a mother deranged and destroy her own hope of refuge. It is outstanding.

“How much more can God ask of us?” they ask. In the case of Matt Fullwood's Mompesson it is to be tested too far. By sending his children to safety he breaks trust with his flock. Still he loses his beloved, Lizzie Hyde's quietly affecting Catherine, to the “Roses” that appear on the skin. Early on his antagonist Stanley has told him “You will not see anything from a pedestal looking down.” By the end his rectitude has gone and he is torn, guilt-ridden. His last speech describes a life of quiet piety to replace his lost zeal. In an inspired touch he moves mid-speech from full light into darkness.

The structured script includes a cantankerous pair of old men who survive. Geoffrey Walker's richly voiced Unwin blames the victims themselves for succumbing. Paul Ingrams' Merrill is twenty years older than in life. His jaw sags with the loss of muscle tone of an octogenarian; his right hand has the tremor of Parkinsons.

In the large cast there are fine supporting voices from, among others, Danielle Marsden, Hazel Fairplay, Nest Howells, Sue Harris, Sian Adam, Tom O’Malley and Heather Giles.

Ruth Edwards' sound design includes choral music, possibly Tavener. Dialogue against music can easily be overdone but the second act use of the most lyrical of Vaughan Williams is imagination indeed.

This strand of theatre is important. It is not just that new playwrights could do well to look deep at the craft of flow, rhythm and climax as practised by Don Taylor. In September this year Sir Ian McKellen raised a flurry with a newspaper article that lamented the decline of acting skills. In his roles as Vice-President of the National Youth Theatre and patron of the Guild of Little Theatres he excoriated drama school culture and linked a spurious professionalisation with the loss of drama rooted in community.

It takes an exceptional professional team to meld a cast of thirty-two, some seasoned, some wholly new to a stage, into the fluid, finished, moving production that Louche has achieved.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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