Claudia Funder on Eyam and what she describes as “the Winter of Our (Australian) Discontent”.
A highlight of the 2018 season at Shakespeare’s Globe was Eyam by the Wales-based playwright Matt Hartley.
In its review, The Guardian concluded with: “In the show’s dying moments, Crane solemnly recites the names of the 273 villagers who lost their lives to the plague. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the sheer magnitude of their sacrifice echoes down the pages.”
Little did anyone know that Covid-19 would be upon us a mere 16 months later. Claudia Funder tells us how during lockdown in Melbourne this past Australian winter, her thoughts frequently returned to that evening in 2018 when she was in the audience innocently watching Eyam.
The year 2020 is not as we had planned it to be. It has been a year of discovery, new experience, trauma, surprise, and uncertainty. Here in Melbourne, we’ve had some form of “lockdown” since March. In June, the cafes and restaurants were reopened nervously under strict controls and ﬁve weeks later they closed again with the reposition of Stage Three lockdown. More severe Stage Four restrictions ensued from August and remain at the time of writing. Artisan gin distilleries have turned to pumping out sanitizer, and trendy masks have usurped trendy coffee. l’m working from home. I stay indoors. I wait. I knit. I know l’m suffering from “Iso-brain” when I ﬁnd my phone in the fridge and catch myself about to put coffee grounds in the detergent compartment of the dishwasher. There are four legal reasons to leave the house and severe ﬁnes for breaching them. The streets are silent. Every shop front is closed, although some provide a limited speakeasy-style “click and collect service.” Who thought we’d hear the children say, “I’ll never complain about school again”.
I have found myself reflecting on what this lived experience means for all of us, at a micro and macro level. We cannot undo our personal and collective experience as an individual, a family, a society, a global village. We can never unknow what we now know. My reﬂections often return to a play I saw at the Globe Theatre, London, in October 2018 that tells the story of when plague came to the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665.
When a tailor brought plague to Eyam, the villagers under the leadership of Reverend Mompesson instigated rules with which we are now intimately familiar. Restrictions on contact with others, travel, outdoor gatherings, church services, and a curfew. The next year, they agreed to quarantine until 28 days from the last death – during which time no one would leave or enter the village. Eyam was isolated for 14 months, and it is thought that by the end only 85 of the original population remained.
Ensemble and Hannah Clark’s models. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
As I reﬂect on the play having seen it nearly two years ago, I am left largely with the impression of the energy arc rather than speciﬁcs of performance or lines uttered. When I saw the play, it was the emotional space that impressed upon me then and has stayed with me since. At the heart of it, the illness was the vehicle by which the story of culture and politics was told. Whilst the plague itself was very present, it could be interpreted as the background device to create the drama — the MacGufﬁn if you will. Indeed, Hartley wrote the play in 2016 essentially about “a coalition” of two people coming together to lead a community in turbulent times which reﬂected the UK political situation as Britain was plunged into Brexit. The audience’s interest was in the circumstance of the characters: the lovers meeting from across the ﬁeld, the burghers’ arguments, political control, and positioning; and the self-doubt and stumbling of Mompesson while wife Katherine proves the stronger and more resilient of the two. And about how the response to the plague changed throughout the event.
Today our emotional response to the piece is far more prescient. I look at this through a different lens and my empathy resonates with the issues at hand rather than with abstract polity. Matt Hartley says, “It’s a story of human endurance and sacriﬁce and I think poses that ultimate question in our human psyche: What would we do when faced with such a dilemma?” Although no longer a rhetorical question, our recent coming to terms with the complexity of this situation sees more opinions than clear answers regarding what to do. The shock of helplessness sits uncomfortably. Social distancing to ensure the disease cannot pass to a new host is the only weapon at hand, and it was something that was ﬁrst tried, and worked, in Eyam.
L to r: Howard Ward, Sirine Saba, Luke MacGregor and Rosie Wardlaw.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The prologue to the Globe’s Eyam was electric. Figures in seventeenth-century dress, puritan in look, danced jerkily and frantically to percussive atonal music led by musical director Jeremy Avis. The energy was nervous, manic, uncontrolled yet stilted. It instantly referenced both the dance plague in Strasbourg of 1518 and “The Village Festival” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The simple device of movement and music set the energy, anxiety, lack of control, and the physicality and mental strain of what was to come: a fractured community and their willpower and endurance tested beyond anything imaginable by a devastating plague. I was instantly transported to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, historic and iconographic ideas sparking through my mind.
The arc of the play reﬂects the intensity of the unfolding events. The long ﬁrst half sets the scene. It is both comic and stark. The Civil War has not long ended, and we are in Cromwellian England. The new priest William Mompesson (Sam Crane) and his wife Katherine (Priyanga Burford) arrive at the village, and through them we are introduced to various local characters in the community: the power-hungry council, the village idiot, the young lovers, the rejected reverend who Mompesson has replaced, and indeed the newly arrived Reverend Mompesson himself and his wife Katherine who is a healer seen to have witchlike attributes. The extended ﬁrst act of the play is the lengthy golden day before the disaster arrives. We watch the normal lives in anticipation of the oncoming darkness of the epidemic. Although somewhat overlong, it sets a marker by which to measure the change of tension, the drama, the fear, and the boredom of life during the plague.
Sickness arrives in act two. The plague is brought to the village from London by a tailor who unknowingly carries a roll of infected fabric with him. The deaths begin. The leadership of the seemingly weak Mompesson brings the village together, as he declares they cannot go outside the town of Eyam until 28 days after no one dies of the plague. It is a hard, relentless task, as the characters we met in the ﬁrst half continue to die. The numbers are mounting, the deaths never ceasing. As Mompesson feels the weight of leadership and community fatigue, Katherine proves to be his sensible stoic supporter. Damp piles of earth are set in an orderly fashion on the stage with little crosses in them. The wet smell of the soil ﬁlled the Globe Theatre, and all of a sudden the deaths seemed very real. We’re in a burial ground. The audience has become the villagers watching the aftermath of so many funerals as gravediggers ﬁnish their work.
Annette Badland as Rev Thomas Stanley (foreground ). Credit: Marc Brenner.
There is a contrast of energy in act two of Eyam. Life has changed. The comedy is gone. Fear and nervousness have set in, and the anxious energy has turned into a dull hum of quiet never-ending waiting and wondering about an uncertain future. The villagers struggle and die or survive. When eventually the plague has abated, the play culminates in a scene where history and drama intersect: Sam Crane reads out the names of each of the 273 who died. It is a striking and heart-wrenching coda as Crane becomes utterly distraught. He’s a shaking mess by the ﬁnish, as are we all. It is a profound moment of realization of the impact of the epidemic on a small community.
As I reﬂect on what we are currently going through, the villagers of Eyam are often in my thoughts. I wonder what it was that they found the most difﬁcult about the pandemic, compared to us? l’m sure they did, as we do, ﬁnd the social distancing hard. l’m sure they understood better the primacy of their own actions in a world of preventive medicine, rather than our world of curative expectation.
I seem to be living through the second act of the play. The energy and enthusiasm the villagers had at the beginning, applying themselves to their agreed contract petered out as time went on and life became dull, repetitious, and rather numbing. Today we call a ﬁrst boost of energy as a coping mechanism to a crisis our “surge capacity”. We certainly saw this in April with everyone connecting online with friends and family, streaming activities, making bread, joining an online class or a choir. In Melbourne, the second lockdown has been very different; our surge capacity has been depleted utterly. In the words of a local broadcaster, “No one’s talking about efﬁn’ sourdough now”. Toward the end of the second act of Eyam, the energy changed once again. The morbidity numbers were decreasing, the number of days between deaths stretched out, and rising hope for the end of quarantine was real.
We are now in that ﬁnal stage of the play here in Melbourne. Spring has arrived; the long cold winter of quiet, nervous lockdown has receded. As I write in late November, it is now exactly 28 days since the last case of Covid-19 was reported; restrictions have gradually and cautiously eased. l think of Eyam once again as the Melbourne community joins those of long ago in relief, jubilation, and deﬁance. It worked. In Vanessa Harding’s essay for the programme of Eyam she writes plague was a disease that literally came and went: it erupted locally and often ﬁercely for a year or two, but then disappeared for years at a time.” Those throw-away words ”a year or two” as if there is scarce difference between them …! For the people of Eyam, 14 months must have seemed like forever – as it does when you cannot see the end. For the people of 2020, let’s hope that Covid is with us only for a year or two.