It is 350 years since a parcel of material was delivered from London to the village tailor George Viccars. The fabric was damp and George aired it in his cottage to dry. Within 48 hours he had become sick and died. Soon others developed the same symptoms – a fever and boils that became black – and died too. The village rector – William Mompesson – recognised that the victims had died of the plague. It was understood that little could be done to treat people and that the illness was easily spread and was usually fatal.
Mompesson was new to the village and was little loved. His predecessor, Thomas Stanley, had taken Cromwell’s side during the Civil War and retained the confidence of many in the village. The two were not natural allies but they recognised that only they had the authority to take the necessary lead in Eyam. Together – and over a period of more than 12 months – they persuaded all the villagers to stay in Eyam so that the plague would not be spread. In that time hundreds of villagers died – including Mompesson’s own wife – with entire families being virtually wiped out.
The power of this anniversary production is derived from a number of sources. The fact that the cottages and church where the tragedy unfolded form the stage lends great poignancy; there are plaques on the cottage walls listing the names and ages of the dead. Most of the huge cast – 56 performers – live or have lived in Eyam and so the connection with the ‘plague village’ is tangible.
The production is also blessed with strong and passionate performances from its central players. Mike Gilbert (Mompesson) is the current rector of Eyam and his agony on losing his wife and having his faith so tested as villagers die almost daily is heartfelt. Kate Stuart (Catherine Mompesson) is moving as she argues to send her children away from the village so that they might be saved even though her husband’s authority might be undermined. Tim Warburton (Thomas Stanley) returns to a role that he played in 2009 and brings dignity and certainty – supporting Mompesson when he wavers. Peter Jackson (Marshall Howe) represents the ordinary villager and is loyal and phlegmatic in the face of turmoil.
The play raises interesting questions about the source of authority in a tight knit community. In this instance the village’s pre-eminent citizens, Colonel and Mrs Bradshaw, are shown as arrogant and cowardly leaving the church as the only source of social cohesion. Despite their doubts about a loving God the villagers resolution is strong.
Everyone involved in making this production is to be thanked and congratulated: from the children who began the evening with a display of Maypole dancing, to the villagers who opened their cottages to be a part of the performance and those bodies that gave grants and made possible the road closure. The Project team – led by Nicola Wright – delivered a brilliant and moving production – it is to be hoped we need not wait for a major anniversary until the next one!
The Roses of Eyam by Don Taylor is a promenade performance in the village of Eyam until June 20.
By Keith Savage