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Long but eventually powerful true story about an English village’s brave actions during the Great Plague
Matt Hartley’s historical drama about the darkest days of the Great Plague takes an eternity to warm up. But once it gets there, it really gets there – the last five minutes are devastating.
It’s based upon the true story of William Mompesson, the young parish vicar to the Derbyshire village of Eyam. Appointed just before the plague rolled in via a consignment of cloth in 1665, Mompesson instigated a disciplined quarantine that saw the village isolate itself from the outside world until the infection had passed.
Even if you were unaware of the story beforehand, the summary of ‘Eyam’ on the Globe website would have got you up to speed. Which is why it’s frustrating that Hartley devotes the best part of 90 minutes (ie the entire first half) to preamble. He opts for a kaleidoscopic view of the assorted feuding eccentrics and rogues who live in the village. Some of his creations are highly entertaining, foremost Rose Wardlaw as ghoulish young nutter Harriet Stubbs. But it’s still too much and Adele Thomas’s production doesn’t have the razzle dazzle to style out so much exposition.
Then there’s Sam Crane’s Mompesson. He is, to put it mildly, a bit of a wet blanket in the first half, propped up his braver, bolder, more capable wife Katherine (Priyanga Burford). Which is fair enough, but his lack of presence only compounds the the sense of directionlessness.
But as the plague bites, his stature increases. You can practically feel the weight on his shoulders – a nonentity suddenly thrust face-to-face with his destiny.
The second half of ‘Eyam’ is by far the stronger, morbidly shooting down the characters we met in the first, as they sit out a terrible winter while grimly adhering to Mompesson’s declaration that they cannot go into the outside world until it has been 28 days since a death.
It is hopefully not too much of a spoiler to say that the plague eventually ended and Mompesson survived. Because it would be unfair to talk about ‘Eyam’ without making reference to its most extraordinary sequence, in which Crane/Mompesson reads out the names of all 273 villagers, of a population of 356, who died in the plague.
As he does so, Crane palpably wilts, looking like he’s forcing himself to do this with the last of his strength. He reads out names of entire families, a death toll in a tiny village that amounted to almost a tenth of 9/11. It’s a transcendent moment and a terrific piece of acting, that touches upon the enormity of the plague years, and on death itself, as a lifetime of losses fly by in a year.
If ‘Eyam’ ever gets staged again I’d like to see the first half whipped into shape – but that end is just sublime.