From left: Howard Ward, Sirine Saba, Luke MacGregor and Rosie Wardlaw in 'Eyam' at  Shakespeare's Globe, London
From left: Howard Ward, Sirine Saba, Luke MacGregor and Rosie Wardlaw in 'Eyam' at Shakespeare's Globe, London © Marc Brenner

You know the scenario. You arrive for your new job to discover that when they said your predecessor had “moved on”, what they actually meant was that the locals had hanged him and dragged his corpse through the country lanes. You are greeted with scorn, if not downright hostility by a fractious, dirty populace, two of whom have a punch-up in front of you. Invited to the local bigwig’s for dinner, you are offered not so much as a cheese straw before your obnoxious host is parading your ousted rival in front of you and gutting a dead deer on the dining room table. Such is the predicament of the Reverend William Mompesson (Sam Crane) in Matt Hartley’s blackly comic and entertaining, if somewhat dense, new play, Eyam.

Eyam is the Derbyshire village that faced down the 1665 bubonic plague epidemic with a self-imposed quarantine that contained the pestilence and stopped it from spreading — at huge cost to local life. In Hartley’s play the irony is that this terrible illness and the villagers’ response become, in a sense, the making of the place, bringing together in adversity what had been a deeply divided community.

At the outset, the shadow of the Civil War looms large. We are plunged, with Mompesson, into a whirlwind of grievances, from land disputes, to religious conflict, to marital discord, all expressed in pungent, expletive-riddled dialogue. The rector himself is regarded with deep suspicion as “a King’s man”. When the plague arrives, wrapped in an innocent-looking bolt of cloth, many seize on it as proof of God’s displeasure. But Mompesson joins forces with his former adversary, the Puritan Thomas Stanley (Annette Badland), to persuade the citizens to risk their own lives for the greater good.

It’s a timely tribute to ordinary people. And Hartley’s narrative contrasts nicely the nobility of the endeavour with the messier reality of mixed motives, friction and despair. The script is spry and sprinkled with good lines. What holds the play back is the sheer quantity of plot — there is such a pile-up of characters and antagonisms that the beginning is unwieldy and there isn’t space to devote real time to any of them. It takes a good hour of wrangling before the plague arrives and while this might set out the community, it makes for unfocused drama.

Hartley creates some great characters though, paying particular attention to strong women, notably the reverend’s wise, determined wife (a terrific performance from Priyanga Burford) and Emmott, a blazingly intelligent young woman, played with inspiring zest by Norah Lopez-Holden. Both play and production fill the space, Adele Thomas’s staging expanding into the Globe courtyard to embrace the audience in this story of a community. She relishes the macabre humour of the piece (there’s more than one animal gutted onstage, not to mention a supposed cadaver sitting bolt upright in a grave) but slowly darkens the mood through the arrival of sinister, beaked figures. And the show ends with Crane’s Mompesson painstakingly reciting the names of the 273 souls lost: a remarkable and moving act of memory.

★★★☆☆

To October 13, shakespearesglobe.com

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