Strangers huddle together, the sounds of stalking, moaning death threatening them from outside. The numbers are horrifying: 1000 dead, then 4000. Paranoia and claustrophobia as the end of days forces the survivors to question their lives and the society they live in.
The Walking Dead? Nope, it’s One Flea Spare: the Naomi Wallace play about the bubonic plague in London in the 17th century. The Great Plague of London killed 100 000 people and sparked mass paranoia: sailors were indiscriminately murdered as scapegoats.
Produced by Edmonton’s Trunk Theatre at the Varscona Theatre, director Amy DeFelice says the real fear comes not from the invisible creeping death of the plague—but from being confronted with one’s humanity.
“There are studies that show that people choose to get electric shocks rather than be alone with their thoughts,” DeFelice says. “There is something about being stuck and not being able to escape yourself that is terrifying.”
The story revolves around the Snelgraves, a wealthy London couple stuck in quarantine in their home, their servants having died around them. They’re nearly finished their four-week house arrest when two strangers, a sailor and a 12-year-old girl, break into their house, forcing them to restart the 28-day quarantine.
The London of the day—when it wasn’t being ravished by disease—was one of fantastic wealth for a few and crushing poverty and misery for many. Having emerged from decades of dour Puritan rule, wealthy Londoners in 1665 dressed in fantastic, colourful clothes and listened to opulent court music. DeFelice says they wanted to capture the feeling of the rich forced to live with the poor.
“There’s this feeling of people who would never have talked to each other,” DeFelice adds.
There are moments of murk and distress, not surprising considering the spectre of death that hangs like a black sheet. But DeFelice notes there is humour in the bleakness, thanks to Wallace’s bright use of language and dialogue. These elements—the humour, the darkness, the madness and chaos—are universal in disaster, be it London in the 1660s or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s that moment when you think the world works in a certain way, a certain order, then suddenly you have to question everything,” DeFelice says. “There’s something about when the rules stop in the world: people act out, but they also test their desires.”
Until Sun, Feb 15 (7:30 pm; 2 pm matinees on Feb 7, 14, 15)
Directed by Amy DeFelice
Varscona Theatre, $15 – $25