A KIND of memorial drama, Matt Hartley’s Eyam retells a famous story: that of the small village of Eyam, in Derbyshire, where the bubonic plague erupted in autumn 1665. (It was thence from London in a parcel of cloth, just as London, in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, receives the infection via a “Parcel of Silks” from the Netherlands.)
Led by their Rector, William Mompesson, and his rival Puritan, Thomas Stanley, the people of Eyam chose to be immured with the plague rather than let it spread beyond their parish bounds; and so their story has been grimly celebrated as one of sacrifice and a community standing together.
It has inspired many an artistic tribute — such as Jill Paton Walsh’s novel A Parcel of Patterns and a “humorous and sad” musical, A Ring of Roses. In the style of many a disaster movie, these retellings tend to impose their own versions of life in a remote 17th-century village, although inevitably all is swept before the destruction to come: it is recorded that the plague killed all but 83 of Eyam’s 350 inhabitants.
The director, Adele Thomas, begins this latest version of Eyam’s story with the hanging of a priest — the ominous prelude to the arrival of Mompesson (played by Sam Crane) and his wife, Katherine (Priyanga Burford). These outsiders are treated to volleys of earthy language and worse (“First time in Derbyshire? You’ll get used to it”). Everyone here is a rough-hewn character, with neighbours at war, and a local landowner (Adrian Bower) to bully the lot of them.
Yet this formidable villain legs it as soon as the plague makes its presence felt, lending an air of redundancy to proceedings. There is also the maudlin killjoy Thomas Stanley to contend with: the opening skirmishes between him and Mompesson, however, fade without resolution as the need to unite against their invisible enemy takes precedence.
Eyam is no Eden. At Shakespeare’s Globe, it is portrayed as a rough, sometimes violent place, a rude world unto itself, where William and Katherine stand for a manner of modernity. “I’m in Eyam where hope dies,” the Rector complains.
Hope persists, though, at least for a time, in the form of the romantic, optimistic Emmott Sydall (Norah Lopez-Holden), and there is a quiet sense that, despite the infighting, the church remains the crucial source of support and unity. Subtlety dies on the Globe stage, but there are haunting moments and a final tribute that should live long in the mind of anybody lucky enough to witness it.
At Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1, until 13 October. Box office: phone 020 7401 9919. shakespearesglobe.com