REVIEW: Ten Plagues

Dani Cugini is confused and mesmerised by one of Cambridge’s most experimental shows to date.

ADC ADC Larkin Studio Dani Cugini David Matthews Drama Heather Conder Musicals review Reviews Song cycle Ten Plagues Theatre

“You have not known what I have seen.”

It is 1665 and the plague has decimated London. A man stands in an empty, lavishly furnished room and washes his hands. Thus begins a production entirely different to the ADC’s usual fare. Secluded in the out-of-the-way Larkum Studio, with only two performers and a pianist, Ten Plagues is intimate and jarring – even the two performers are the same person, the same mind, ‘plagued’ with trauma, guilt and inwardness as he shelters from the plague.

Two performers, one character. (Photo Credit: Lian Wilkinson)

David Matthews and Heather Conder: ‘divided parts of the same psyche’. (Photo Credit: Lian Wilkinson)

Ten Plagues is a song cycle by Mark Ravenhill, adapted from plague-time texts including Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. I didn’t know what a song cycle was before attending this show: it’s mostly in the name – it’s a cycle of songs that run into each other – but you have to see one to get a full sense of what they are. The songs are part-song, part-narrative, part-poetry, part-diary – it’s different from a musical or opera since everything is included within the songs.

Part of the intrigue of this production is in Conor Mitchell’s unusual score. Songs aren’t ‘catchy’ at all, but eerily chromatic and shifting (to the point that it’s a startling accomplishment that the performers remember the tune). It sets you on edge, bringing you into the mind of Ten Plagues‘ character as he loses loved ones, watches a man die in the street, and sings of the suffocating fear of both death and survival.

(Photo Credit: Lian Wilkinson)

‘Matthews’ more inward and yearning portrayal placed against Conder’s energetic and disturbed performance.’ (Photo Credit: Lian Wilkinson)

The performers, Heather Conder and David Matthews, both deserve praise for their performances – they are clearly both technically accomplished singers and show acting promise. Both present an interesting counterpoint, with Matthews’ more inward and yearning portrayal placed against Conder’s energetic and disturbed performance. Matthews walks slowly about the stage, sits, stares at the wall; Conder watches from the shadows, scampers about, steals a piece of fruit. It feels like they’re playing divided parts of the same psyche.

If ‘eerie’ is one word to describe Ten Plagues, another is ‘careful’: the lighting and choreography are minimalistic and elegant, and every movement and look between the performers is carefully composed. The singing is careful too, and any slips out of key were only momentary (entirely forgivable in an almost-hour-long show of near-constant singing). There was a slight volume problem, more with Matthews than Conder, with the music sometimes obscuring his words, but generally the production is effectively minimalistic and handled professionally.

Arresting, beautiful, thought-provoking. But what constitutes entertainment? (Photo Credit: Lian Wilkinson)

‘Arresting, thought-provoking, elegant’. But what does it mean to be ‘entertaining’? (Photo Credit: Lian Wilkinson)

But do I recommend Ten Plagues? Not to everyone. It’s definitely a niche production, which is not a problem in itself, but the weight of the subject matter and the unusual form means that not everyone is going to be spellbound. I found it arresting, thought-provoking, elegant – but not ‘entertaining’ as such. It depends on what you want in a show.

What I would say is that it’s an enriching experience to see something so different to the usual Cambridge theatre, and it’s worth seeing for a perhaps greater reason than it being ‘fun’: it expanded what I think of as ‘theatre’ and ‘musical theatre.’ And if you’re a fan of opera, Ten Plagues will likely interest you.

Ten Plagues is a rare gem to find within the Cambridge theatre scene. It may not be typical evening entertainment, but not all shows have to be. It is skilled, absorbing, and those involved deserve recognition for the difficulty of their subject. If you want something a little different, it’s worth a watch.

3.5/5 stars