Review: Ten Plagues

Image credit: Lian Wilkinson

Mark Ravenhill’s Ten Plagues is a 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe Award winning song cycle that covers the dark topic of epidemics. Following the slightly delirious-feeling inner turmoil of a man watching the 1655 plague unfurl we witness the hysteria and panic that surrounds a dying city, from the darkness of a small isolated room. The aggressive mass hysteria that people treat the plague with is written as a reflection of the common reaction to epidemics like swine flu and SARS, or perhaps most poignantly what was once called the “gay plague”, Aids. Ravenhill himself is HIV positive, and lost a former partner to the illness.

We see the man in this production slowly lose his mind from the loss and panic of plague-ridden London, at one point deliberately infecting others by walking into town with a wig made from the hair of dead plague victims. It isn’t a light hearted script.

David Matthews and Heather Conder both deliver strong vocal performances, but the production falls a bit flat. Coherent storyline and believable portrayals of the character are sacrificed for vocal acrobatics. There’s a lot of wandering around the stage in a ghost-like way, which perhaps conveys the light-headedness of grief, but leaves the audience feeling a bit dizzy after a while, and not in a good way.

Meaningful staring into the distance is also overused from a few minutes in and becomes almost comic. Dramatic piano music is effective the first time, but after twenty minutes it becomes wearing, this is exaggerated by the poor use of space in the ADC Larkum Studio where barely twenty people were seated right up against the ‘stage’. At one point one of the actors almost stumbled into the audience after a slightly over-courageous dance routine, it could have been deliberate, but probably not. 

The overall performance is left disjointed, confusing and unclear. An emotive The one emotive moment in the song cycle - a realisation by the character - almost saves the production, but not quite.  In this case, there is no dark without light, and the unrelenting misery of this production leaves no room to connect with the character or the tragedy of the tale. 


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