Playwright Matt Hartley grew up with the little village of Eyam visible from his bedroom window. For him, its legacy was always there. For the rest of us, it’s an often-forgotten story. When the small Derbyshire Village was struck by the plague via an infected tailor’s fabric in 1665, the community remarkably decided to quarantine themselves, preventing the deadly disease from spreading to neighbouring villages and potentially saving hundreds of lives. Three quarters of Eyam’s population died in the 13 months that they spent in purgatory. They made the ultimate sacrifice. Now, Hartley brings us the story of Eyam. Using historical accounts as a base, he’s breathed new life into an almost 400-year-old tale.
The cast of Eyam have already worked together on this year’s The Winter’s Tale, and it shows. They hurl lines, jokes and insults at one another, and have fostered a perfectly familial atmosphere. Like families, the characters bicker and fight, but when plunged into crisis they mostly come together. Norah Lopez-Holden as young Emmott Sydall, is headstrong and courageous, who exhibits extraordinary honour and confines herself to Eyam despite being in love with Luke MacGregor’s hapless half-witted baker from the village next door, Rowland Torre. MacGregor and Sirine Saba as Edward and Mary Cooper bring a hilarious over-protective mother and over-grown son relationship to the play, while Oliver Ryan as Unwin the butcher and Howard Ward as Howe the gravedigger, are amoral opportunists that bring more slapstick-style laughs to an otherwise very sombre affair. There is a large cast, and we jump from feud to love affair to business arrangement, never quite delving into any detail. The play’s inability to settle on one story does water down the plot a little.
I don’t think it would necessarily be a spoiler to tell you that the plague practically devastated Eyam. It claimed many lives and wiped out entire families. However, Eyam’s most gut-wrenching moments aren’t the deaths or the loss, but the moments of life and love. Like when young Emmet and Roland are planning their future together after the plague, or when Katherine Mompesson (Priyanga Burford) shows Emmet and her mother Elizabeth (Becci Gemmell) a shell given to her by her youngest son on a family holiday, in which they can hear a sea that they’ve never seen. These tender moments of human connection, of love and friendship, make the tragedy more palpable as we realise that it’s unlikely that they’ll survive.
Adele Thomas’ production uses much of the first act to explain the village’s recent history and introduce Eyam’s characters and their hierarchy in the village. An hour in and I found myself, somewhat morbidly, waiting for the plague to strike. It looms in the human-sized ravens donning the dark doctor’s masks thought to ward off the disease that appear in the stalls and behind the characters, but only when it arrives does the story really begin. The Globe also forewarns us that “the plague isn’t a pretty disease so also anticipate blood, pus, boils, nudity”, so I was expecting to be properly disgusted, and rightfully so, the plague was a grotesque illness and a horrible way to go, but Eyam didn’t portray this as well as it could have. Despite this, Eyam still has lasting impact. In a final scene, a grieving Reverend Mompesson (Sam Crane) recounts the names of over 250 people who died in Eyam to total silence, and centuries later we’re reminded of the gravity of their sacrifice.
Eyam is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 October. For more information and tickets, please click here.