Probably the most impressive production over the first few months of the season involved a play which also called on strong literary antecedents. Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare takes as its topic the bubonic plague which ravaged London in 1665. Wallace, an American, dips liberally into Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Samuel Pepys Diary to source background, imagery and language, but puts it all together with original material to come up with a totally gripping piece of theatre.
The topic of the plague, one of history’s most vicious biological killers, might seem too large to tackle in two concentrated hours of theatre, but playwright Wallace employs a device which isolates the disease and lets her concentrate on what it does to its victims - both those who ultimately survive and those who don’t.
Wallace’s device is essentially the same one Jean-Paul Sartre used in his play Huis Clos (alternately translated as No Exit and In Camera). In his play, the devout atheist Sartre crafted his own version of an Existentialist Hell - three people forced together for all eternity in a distastefully decorated room. Sartre’s infernal trio soon discover that Hell can consist of nothing more than “other people”. In One Flea Spare, Naomi Wallace assembles four diverse individuals in a set of rooms, quarantined by the plague and condemned to each other’s fears, vanities and obsessions. They then proceed to forge their own kind of Hell, with little hints of possible redemption which may or may not materialise.
This accidental quartet is composed of a wealthy London merchant and his pitifully proper wife, a well-worn sailor, and a 12-year old maidservant. Trapped by the clamp of a quarantine in the home of the wealthy couple, these four can do little but strip off all deceptions, pretensions and useless defenses which their society had forced on them before it either fled to the country or died in the streets.
There’s also a fifth personage to this plague chronicle, Kabe, a crude but cunning exemplar of London’s 17th century proletariat, now employed as watchman and guard. Kabe’s job is to make sure that the quarantined stay in their locked premises until they receive the all-clear sign that will allow them to resume what now passes for normal life in plague-torn London. But Kabe also serves as a kind of one-man tragic chorus, crying out the ways of the fates and the uselessness of opposing them. He also offers crude but painfully apt observations on life, death and suffering, as well as on social inequalities and injustices. As the least physically threatened character in the play, Kabe had the mobility and the temerity to bark out truths the others would like to avoid. He rarely passes up the chance to do so.
Having set up this ensemble, Wallace then stirs this potent brew to comes up with a stunningly powerful play. While Belly of the Carp may have proceeded from a book of poems, the most impressive poetic text in recent theatre is to be found here in One Flea Spare. The language is rich, overwrought but fittingly so: anything less than overwrought would be too little here, as the characters probe questions of life and death that most people never dare. These four sad wretches use language to bludgeon each other or to scourge themselves, then to blaspheme God for His seeming cruelty or abandonment. But they also use it to soothe, comfort, heal each other as well as to beg God for deliverance from the horrible pestilence.
Christian imagery abounds, often twisted and turned around in brilliant ways to new, profane purposes. A good example of this occurs when Mrs. Snelgrave, the merchant's wife, doubts the wound that sailor Bunce claims is festering in his side. In an echo of the doubting apostle Thomas, she insists on sticking her fingers in Bunce's wound. This action quickly takes on an intense sexual charge, as this long sexually frustrated woman switches male-female roles with the highly sexual man: the woman penetrating the man, the man receiving her penetration as a sign of intimacy. But this act, like most other attempts at intimacy in One Flea Spare, is doomed to quickly fail.
Sexuality, repressed or released in ugly ways, is rampant throughout much of this play which looks at how social mores break down in the face of the devastations of the plague. All of it is handled brilliantly, as the story swirls and shutters along the path towards its bitter conclusion.
The play's great strengths help to cloak its several key flaws . The main flaw is the flagging of vision that occurs just as the play should really lift off. In fact, I’d say One Flea Spare just misses greatness because it never uses its explosive material to rise to statements about life or death larger than those that readily suggest themselves. Indeed, the second act seems to lose purpose for a while as the play continues with variations on a theme rather than a movement to ever greater insights.
Okay, even if it’s not an unabashedly great play, it’s a pretty damn good one, and the luna-id treatment of this material was excellent. It is, in fact, the best show I’ve ever seen luna-id put up. From Sebastian Zeng's set and costume design to Bradley Peter Bowyer's lighting plot and Daren Ng's music and sound, production values were first-rate.
But the direction and acting stand out above all these other aspects, as should be. Christian Huber, luna-id's artistic director, has put this work together in a highly commendable manner. Whereas the staging of luna-id's last two shows, with their varied locations, did cause a bit of a problem, here Huber devises a perfect forum for the show. The use of space intensifies the sense of cramped confinement at the same time it allows characters to move about effectively when they need to. Also, Huber and his set designer manage to remove any threat of boring visuals by means of a wall which can swings in a number of directions. This wall, framing the one window onto the street, gives us the sense of a development in the circumstances of this quartet of the damned.
Huber was more than amply assisted by his cast, whose performances ran from good to excellent. The two stand-outs were Janice Koh as Morse, the young maidservant, and Rehaan Engineer as Bunce. Koh was thoroughly believable as a girl less than half her own age, at least in part because the rage in Morse's soul gives her a frightening maturity. Koh captured all these elements beautifully in the best performance I've ever seen her give. Engineer's performance was craftier, more balanced, more insidious - in other words as superbly fitting his character as was Koh's Morse.
The roles of Mr and Mrs Snelgrave did not serve up quite the challenges these above roles did, but Michael Corbridge and Christina Sergeant were nonetheless quite strong as the doomed couple. And in the minor role of Kabe, Mark Waite was also excellent, sending chills down our spines as we think that this is supposed to be the voice of health and the future.
This script, this acting, this production are what theatre should be and should make us proud that such shows are being mounted locally.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002