Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Theatre review: Ten Plagues

On meeting Mark Ravenhill a few years ago, Marc Almond asked to be considered should any of the playwright's future works require a small singing role. Instead, Ravenhill and composer Conor Mitchell presented Almond with Ten Plagues, a solo performance of a song cycle about London's great plague of 1665. Settling into the appropriately decayed walls of Wilton's Music Hall, Ten Plagues sees the singer as a lone survivor. A barrister, judging by the wig he wears at the start, this man appears to have had the option to, as most of the well-off did, escape London for the disease-free countryside. He remains stubbornly in the city though, attempting to avoid the disease while also becoming fascinated with it, almost daring it to infect him. He also fixates on the effects on the body, and the unceremonious way in which the dead are disposed of.

Being an operatic song cycle in a discordant musical style, Ten Plagues is too far out of my area of expertise for me to comment on the quality of Mitchell's music or Almond's vocal performance. It's far from a populist piece in any way but I found it pretty interesting, and something a bit different to my usual fare.

Though set in 1665, the piece is clearly an allegory for a more recent epidemic, the telltale lesions the narrator describes on those infected an obvious parallel with those associated with AIDS, and which in the early days of that disease could sometimes be the first sign someone got of being ill. The survivor's particular fascination with the effect on bodies is kicked off when a friend and/or lover is infected and very quickly dies; Finn Ross' sparsely-used video projections of shirtless young men with which Almond interacts are kept firmly in the present day.

There's some suggestion in the publicity that there's a "4-D" element to the performance, with smell added to the sense the piece engages with, but I can't say I noticed any evidence of this myself. But those element that are in play interestingly combine to create something memorable that sees one man's response to mass deaths encompass the terrified, the defiant and the ghoulish.

Ten Plagues by Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell is booking until the 18th of May at Wilton's Music Hall.

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

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