A song cycle that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011, ‘Ten Plagues’ is a kind of dramatic journal of life in London during the plague year of 1665, with music by Conor Mitchell and a libretto by Mark Ravenhill. Soft Cell singer Marc Almond – the only figure to appear on stage – is our guide through a city at first sceptical of, then ravaged by, then in recovery from an epidemic that killed 100,000 Londoners.
Directed by Hester Chillingworth, the show is a potent, moving balance of formal and emotional elements. Wilton’s Music Hall makes for an ideal setting: the set’s shabby elegance fuses almost seamlessly with that of the scarred but proud venue, which recently survived its own brush with potential destruction, neatly illustrating the cycle’s basic thesis that London can take it. Clever, ethereal video work, meanwhile, allows the central figure to look outwards in space and time without undermining the show’s essential claustrophobia.
Mitchell’s score can be challenging to ears (like mine) that are attuned to melody, but is offset by the simplicity of Ravenhill’s words and clarity of Almond’s performance. This journey has momentum: early insouciance gives way to grotesque fascination, paranoia, absurd humour, forbearance, grizzled survivalism and a kind of ecstasy. Universal and contemporary concerns come to mind, of course – the Aids crisis looms particularly large – but it’s vivid, specific details that stick in the mind, from the way an exuberant wig hangs to the description of a corpse’s stare.