Considering the dominance of the Covid pandemic over lives worldwide, there have been remarkably few plays so far that take it as their central topic. That’s not to say it is never alluded to because it certainly is and every time I’ve sat down to watch any online theatre there’s always been the thought nagging away at the back of the brain about how different the experience would be if it were being played upon a real stage in actual time in front of a live audience. But dramas about the virus and its effects have been few and far between though there have been honourable exceptions such as Love In the Lockdown and No Masks. Perhaps it’s been too early or perhaps writers have felt it is the last topic that anyone wants to engage with when watching some theatre. Just lately though there are signs that some pieces on this topic are starting to emerge. Such was the case with the two latest choices I opted for – although both approached the subject from a slightly oblique angle.
The first, The Scarlet Letter, harks back to the Great Plague of the mid-17th century via the testimony of scientist and general man of learning, Francis Mortymer. He has invented a voice recording system which he calls “tangible phonetics” and this is how we can listen to his voice centuries later. Mortymer uses wax cylinders to paint a verbal picture of the stranglehold that the Plague has gained over his beloved Cambridge and the effects this has had on himself and the people of the town. It seems that things are no better elsewhere as he converses with his friend and diarist Samuel (!!) in London. But it is the immediate effects on his own health which are most noticeable as he weakens and sickens. Anton Lesser is quite mesmerising as Mortymer and although this is an audio play the actor leaves us in no doubt of the physical crumbling of the character he is playing. Lesser, of course, is one of those actors who could hold attention by reading the proverbial phone book. He is helped immeasurably by Paul Freeman’s sound design which starts out as an atmospherically crackling recording and ratchets up the tension with some doom laden music. While the play is set in another time entirely, writer James O’Neill has Mortymer make some relevant points about quarantine, possible cures and impending death which are highly relevant to current times. There’s even a sly dig at “incompetent government” but if we are ever tempted to forget that this is the past, we are reminded by the fact that there is a doctor still prepared to make repeated house calls – that is, if he is actually a doctor. This short compelling drama neatly encapsulates the fear that the pandemic has managed to spread alongside the actual disease and is well worth a listen.
I was even more taken with the second piece, also a monologue but this time on video. Denial swiftly introduces us to Neville (pro-Brexit, anti-immigration) who is into UFOs, alien activity, crop circles and conspiracy theories and claims to know what is really going on – unlike the rest of us. Naturally he has a theory about the pandemic or, as he calls it the “shamdemic”; its all one gigantic hoax perpetrated by the powers that be and he’s having none of it – “Who’s ever heard of a disease that’s fatal for some people and something or nothing for others?” When Neville develops a cough you think you know where this tale is headed but, in a neat twist, it is actually something far worse. Ian Dixon Potter’s script has gathered together the various half baked notions and twisted truths of the anti-lockdown/mask/vax brigade and put them into the mouth of Neil Summerville’s camply malevolent monster who chillingly thinks that HE is the voice of reason. It’s an insidiously powerful performance from the actor which finds all the laughs but is ultimately horrifying.
The direction of this half hour play was very well executed (also Ian Dixon Potter) and I loved the attention to detail. Neville’s little library contains popular fiction by Dan Brown, John Grisham and Michael Crichton, his spectacles are held together with sticky tape, and we are left in no doubt as to what we are supposed to think when he drinks from a mug with the slogan “Mad As A Hatter”. It’s a little gem of a piece; I’ve only just come across production company Golden Age Theatre and they have several other filmed performances which I’m certainly going to delve into spurred on by the quality I saw here. Ironically it seems that You Tube took a slightly different view as the video was actually taken down and blacklisted; the system’s algorithms decided it was propounding the very views that the piece is satirising. Neville would have loved that!
The Scarlet Cross is available on Soundcloud- click here
Denial is available via Scenesaver – click here
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