Self-reflection through theatre is often refreshing, sometimes uncomfortable, and not usually associated with Boris Johnson’s booming Covid-19 announcements through 17th century Derbyshire. However, in a show like Bedlam Theatre Company’s The Roses of Eyam, where plague-stricken villagers prance around in pink dungarees and teal tuxedos before dying gruesome, lonesome deaths, it is possible.
From the heart-wrenching romantic subplot of Emmot and Raymond to the unlikely bromance between two vicars, the troupe powerfully renders the intensity of relationships between the villagers. Social distancing, isolation and breakups are featured throughout–some actors even donned masks. For a second, you might even forget where Eyam ends and Edinburgh begins. Harsh red and white lighting is accompanied by a bleak soundtrack, lending the play a miserable atmosphere. As the play progresses, the stage becomes more empty. The reason for this? Most of the characters have died by intervals. The play is utterly unforgiving as it wickedly encourages the audience to foster sympathy and love for the characters, only to watch them die in the next scene.
Comedic relief, albeit minimal, takes the form of the energetic and frankly hilarious Bedlam, who seems to not even realise there’s a plague for most of the play. Paired with occasional schizophrenic outbursts from Unwin, and a lot of grunting from Howe, these three characters provide a much-needed respite from the depressing void that is Eyam.
Despite this, the romance between our two bashful village sweethearts fails to last past the plague, as symbolised by the emotional speeches hurled across the stage from two sides of a door in what may have been the first (of many) socially distanced breakups. A tear-stricken Stanley, lip quivering, screaming at his God for abandoning him with raw and painful anger, completely wrecked all my emotional barriers and left me a blubbing mess alongside him. As if plague and heartbreak were not enough, where would the 17th century be without some form of religious crisis?
The second half begins, and we are plunged into a circus-like sequence. I question if this is still Eyam as the entire cast descends into an exquisitely choreographed spectacle of mesmerising madness. There is a sense of comradery in the cast’s movement and their fluidity as an ensemble, which beautifully complements the overarching message of fraternity.
The performance ends as it has begun, with a truly haunting rendition of Auld Lang Syne, and for the first time since I have been sitting here, I feel a sense of genuine hope. This is by no means a short play and certainly not one for those partial to happy romances. Yet there is a particular poignancy in watching actors perform a story that all of us have lived through, and ultimately, all of us have to learn from.
The Roses of Eyam runs from the 18th to the 20th of February, 2022.
Image: Minnie (Frith) and Megan (Thornley). Courtesy of The Bedlam Theatre Company.