The Plague Dances
Four Larks Theatre had me at hello. That hello was last year, when after getting wind of the hype in their name, I was lucky enough to witness the underground phenomenon Undine, which continues to linger in my subconscious to this day. The Plague Dances, the first of Four Larks’ resident shows at The Malthouse’s Tower Theatre, is just as affecting.
Immersion is the word that for me best encompasses Four Larks’ style, and the reason why their shows resonate on such a profound level.
From the theatre’s entrance, we walk not into a bare auditorium with a show about to be performed before us, but upon earth and branches among rustic wood and hessian sacks that prime our senses for the dark forest of imagination we then willingly enter when called.
Immersion continues as dialogue, music and dance unfold the story. Four Larks utilise these essential components of what one might refer to as ‘musical theatre’ while remaining completely free from any constraint or pre-conception of genre.
Organic instruments steep the soundscape in incidental music that flows effortlessly to underscore. Dialogue morphs to singing, and physical theatre becomes contemporary dance. These perpetual segues are successful only because the art is of such a consistently high quality and its realisation devoid of self-consciousness or congratulations.
Set in mediaeval Europe, The Plague Dances is the story of Hanalore, a peasant girl who arrives as a stranger in a small village. Initially suspected of carrying bubonic plague, her presence is a test of compassion for the God-fearing townsfolk and local priest. As the doctor declares her plague-free the harsh climatic conditions the town has long suffered begin to subside, and Hanalore is heralded as a bringer of good fortune. While the subject of the village’s adoration, Hanalore becomes prone to fits of violent shaking, then to outbursts of uncontrollable singing and dancing. Gradually other townsfolk begin to exhibit the same behavior and the condition becomes a new kind of plague.
This powerful story, inspired by historical accounts of people suddenly seized by the desire to dance to their deaths, prompts close scrutiny of the very question of human nature.
As Christianity advanced through the middle ages, long-held pagan rituals involving singing, dancing and the celebration of the physical world became frowned upon. The Plague Dances invites us to consider if the proponents of such unsolicited outbursts were in fact insane, physically afflicted, dancing with the devil or merely expressing repressed human impulses.
In this Pandora’s Box of subtext we also come face to face with the concepts of original sin, indoctrination, superstition, contradiction and the demonization of nature. Those ‘infected’ invoke Vitus, (Patron Saint of Dancing, Bohemia and Epilepsy among other portfolios) whose story of martyrdom tells of him defiantly dancing throughout his earthly torment as a testament to his faith.
Via what I now appreciate to be Four Larks Theatre’s signature style, this weighty thematic material is presented with such elegance that it becomes not only digestible but beautiful.
Written, directed, produced and choreographed by the team of Mat Diafos-Sweeney, Jesse Rasmussen and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, The Plague Dances is such a tightly woven ensemble collaboration that it is difficult to single out individuals for comment, yet each stands worthy.
Diafos-Sweeney’s evocative score is compositional genius performed by virtuosic musicians. Ellen Strasser and Peters-Lazaro’s rustic set and Tom Willis’ lighting design harmonise to create the visual canvas upon which the actors play.
Kevin Kiernan-Molloy as the priest and Emily Tomlins as Magda measure their respective characters’ conflicts with intelligent restraint and fire. The climactic scene between the two is staggering.
Esther Hanneford earths the character of Hanalore in her natural presence. Her effortless performance and vocals are the very definition of both the musical style she embodies and the central subject of the play…Soul.
That’s it. This is intricate, original theatre with boundless creativity and buckets of soul. Four Larks Theatre’s reputation continues to snowball for good reason. Melbourne, get immersed.