The Plague Dances, by Marcel Dorney and Four Larks, Malthouse Theatre, Until May 6.
Until now, Four Larks’ unique and bewitching style of music theatre has been reserved for those willing to seek out obscure warehouses and private garages. The Plague Dances is the company’s first main stage outing. It delves into the medieval mind, a world of stark religion and incurable diseases, the veneration of saints and early graves.
Hannelore (Esther Hannaford) arrives in a small village, having fled the plague that decimated her home. The priest (Kevin Kearney-Molloy) takes her in, and when the weather improves, the villagers begin to see Hannelore’s arrival as a sign of God’s favour. But when her strange jerking movements cause an outbreak Saint Vitus’ dance, what seemed a divine blessing becomes another curse of the flesh.
Vivid, atmospheric design turns the Tower Theatre into a broken chapel of timber and dust. But it is music that has always been Four Larks’ strongest suit, and Mat Diafos Sweeney’s score – a transporting blend of folk composition, Christian devotional song, with occasional alt-pop intrusions – sounds as if someone had let loose Massive Attack or the Cocteau Twins on a medieval concept album. The musicians and vocalists achieve a haunting, distinctive sound that’s woven into the performance at the deepest level, and is at least as important as Marcel Dorney’s script in generating a lost world.
The Plague Dances features stunning music, and visual theatre that takes us from field to church pew, but the human drama doesn’t always convince. Distilled and intensely rendered acting from Emily Tomlins as a bereaved mother sits cheek by jowl with the unauthoritative fruitiness of Kiernan-Molloy’s priest, for example. And the script itself, while obviously well-researched, could be accused of oversimplifying the violent misogyny of the medieval period to cater to modern sensibilities.
Music and performance craft distract from the blemishes. The Plague Dances remains an involving and sensual experience, and a fine showcase for one of our more original and significant independent companies.