Monday, 22 February 2016

Ten Plagues @ Traverse, Fringe 2011

One man, one piano, one vision

It’s a shame that writer Mark Ravenhill is adamant in his introduction to Ten Plagues that he wrote the libretto with Mark Almond in mind as the solo singer: Almond’s performance is the weakest aspect in a production that cleverly adapts a narrative about London’s black death into a worthy metaphor for any curse befalling a city. Almond’s star quality – evident as far back as his iconic appearance on Top of the Pops as part of Soft Cell – is not enough to hide his voice’s limited range and character, and while he revels in the lighter moments, he fails to capture the more hysterical, operatic sequences.

Director and designer Stewart Laing gives Ten Plagues an agitated energy. Opting for a sparse set, he allows Almond plenty of space to inhabit, and the subtle touches of video intensify the lonely isolation of the man adrift in a city of plague. Almond is at his best in the intimate numbers, remembering a lover or guilty enjoying the extravagance of a wig, and the finale, when his voice is joined by a chorus in the audience, makes the finale a melancholic celebration of survival.

Ravenhill’s words are a poetic evocation of the paranoia, selfishness and anxiety that grips a mind in the thrall of terror: the singer is lost in a city populated by the sick, dead and frightened. Without trying to justify the behaviour of a man who is simply trying to survive, Ravenhill demonstrates a profound compassion for the victims of the Black Death and, by extension, any urban horror. A descriptions of a trip to the fish-market, replete with period detail, becomes a vivid adventure into the heart of terror, resonate of both early responses to HIV and even contemporary anguish around financial disorder.

Almond is solid, but not remarkable, robbing the production of immediacy and high drama: Laing opts for an understated meditation and a triumphant end, suiting the undertow of Ravenhill’s writing and keeping Almond’s ability unexposed. Yet in avoiding the more rabid analysis of the plague, this vision of hell is a subtle reflection rather than a provocation.

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