One Flea Spare
ANU Arts Centre, May 14-17
If this play doesn’t win awards and accolades for the fabulous set (designed by Gowrie Varma and Ellie Greenwood), there is no justice in this world. The jumble of furniture and picture frames hanging from the ceiling and hammered to the walls screams chaos. This is a world where social, sexual, political and cultural mores are turned upside down and we are immediately plunged into this moral morass.
If, however, there is no justice; that would also be fitting, as inequality is one of the major themes the play examines. In 1665 when the plague stalks the streets of London, the wealthy couple William and Darcy Snelgrave (Andrew Eddey and Sarah Heywood) are quarantined in their house for four weeks. On the last day of their confinement, the house is broken into by Bunce (Lewis McDonald), a sailor, and Morse (Cheski Walker), a strange adolescent who turns out to be the serving girl of their neighbours. Once the guard, Kabe (George Mitton) detects their presence, the house is sealed up for another 28 days, forcing the unlikely foursome to live together in less than perfect harmony.
The isolation is stifling and the silences are admirably awkward as the unwelcome house-guests begin to learn about each other. The members of the confined quartet all give solid performances as they tease out information and back-stories from their characters. As in previous NUTS productions, the age of the available actors limits the possible range of expression, but the actors playing the fifty-something Snelgraves gave pretty fine performances considering. Darcy Snelgrave has been physically, sexually and emotionally repressed for over thirty years, and although Heywood plays this as more grumpy irritation than subdued longing, her thawing is persuasive as she rediscovers the pleasure of touch and intimacy.
Her husband is caught between trying to be the boss and wanting to explore the worlds that Bunce has seen. Eddey portrays this dichotomy with sincerity and his interrogation scenes are a masterpiece of cautious curiosity. McDonald, meanwhile, imbues Bunce with authority and awareness, whether instructing William and Darcy on physical intimacy or regaling the company with tales of wanderlust. He adds just the right hint of intimidation when he dresses in another man’s clothes and literally assumes the mantle of power.
As Morse, Cheski Walker luxuriates in a childlike limpidity and her movements around the stage are fluid and compelling. She might benefit from more variety of tone, however, as the depiction of fey spirit child becomes a little tiresome, and renders the screaming passion unconvincing. Similarly, Mitton could bring more menace to the role of Kabe. His jovial cheek adds a light comic touch, but a man who has been handed control over his past masters would surely take a more spiteful advantage of his new-found promotion.
There are some pacing issues in the play, which may be due to the co-direction of Gowrie Varma and Ellie Greenwood. Perhaps having two directors rather than one muddles the focus and prevents continuity. At times it feels as though everyone thought someone else was providing the vision and it all gets a little lost. At the interval, I heard several people wondering if it was actually the end, and only the fact that they hadn’t seen the actors bow persuaded them to return to the auditorium. Parts of the second half also flagged as though the actors were unsure how to combine the separate movements into a cohesive symphony.
Naomi Wallace took the title of her play from a John Donne poem in which a man exalts in the thought of a flea mingling the blood of a pair of lovers. Of course the flea’s ability to cross borders of sanguinity has darker consequences in terms of disease. In the enforced isolation the characters are simultaneously saved and damned by proximity and contact. The important moments all come through physical transfer: transmitting gin from one mouth to another; the caress of a body that has not been touched for 37 years; the placing of a finger into an open wound; the angel’s breath of a child or death; the strangely seductive handling of an orange; the thrilling fetish of toe-sucking.
This plague affects all – the rich and poor alike – and has no respect of place, persons nor time. Donne was a metaphysical poet; a term coined by Samuel Johnson to describe a loose bunch of poets concerned with conceits and speculation on themes such as politics and religion. The play’s treatment of class disparity is apt in this context and the poetic surface belies a blunt sub-text of growing concern over inequality as exemplified by recent riots and Occupy movements.
Of course, as every English school-child knows, the 1665 epidemic of the Bubonic Plague in London was swept away by the Great Fire of 1666. The notion of purity is strong on this stage; from the white outfits the characters wear, all the better to show up the blood and the dirt, to the constant washing of the floorboards with vinegar to prevent infection. The compulsory propinquity may lead not only to epidemic outbreaks of disease, but social revolution. Wallace seems to suggest that our contemporary plague is greed and individualism, and only through sharing and collectivism will we recover healthy community.