Ten Plagues

Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art.

With:
Performer - Marc Almond
Video performer - Francis Christeller

Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle for a solo singer, “Ten Plagues” is about a man’s journey through the streets of London during the Great Plague of 1665. With its modern-day resonances and closing coup de theatre, it is an impassioned testimony to the socially disruptive power of an incurable virus.

Although Ravenhill does not make direct reference to AIDS, his libretto and the production are subtly infused with the experience of the modern era’s most devastating illness. On one level, the playwright is talking about the social impact of any epidemic. He avoids being reductive by taking a title that alludes to the biblical ten plagues of Egypt and employing a narrative that focuses on 17th-century London. But at the same time, you can’t hear a line such as “I almost kissed you, but you stopped me, said I’ve found a tumor” without thinking of the profound personal toll brought about by the spread of HIV.

As helmer, Laing underscores this idea with a similar degree of restraint. He makes a feature of Almond’s isolation by placing him on a wide stage scattered with 16 music stands, neatly picked out by lighting designer Zerlina Hughes, as if ready for an orchestra that never arrives. Above the pianist is a second playing area, a shallow box on which video images are projected. Superbly coordinated to match Almond’s movements, these flitting images of male figures are variously homoerotic and ghostly, suggesting lovers and corpses, all untouchable memories.

Dressed in a flowing black coat, Almond plays a man inhabiting a world governed by fear of a mystery disease. In shops he has to place his coins in a cup of vinegar because shopkeepers believe the virus could be transmitted by money, while he chooses to wear a wig despite the risk of fleas spreading the illness. This is a plague that affects not only its immediate victims but also its survivors, both emptying the streets and changing social relationships.

On first listen, Mitchell’s atonal score lacks variety (as tuners go, this one has few tunes) but he provides a sympathetic setting for Almond’s distinctively emotive style and gives tremendous clarity to Ravenhill’s words. Although the sung-through piece places few demands on the singer’s acting ability, Almond does a good job at physicalizing the characters he encounters without distracting from the music.

It is in the closing moments that “Ten Plagues” finds its emotional force, as Ravenhill talks with bitter honesty about the inexpressible bonds between plague survivors and the subsequent refusal to talk about it once the illness has passed. As the theme moves to the continuance of life, Laing springs his own surprise as a male choir stands up in the auditorium as if to shout Almond down from his isolation.

Ten Plagues

Traverse Theater, Edinburgh; 250 Seats; £19 $31 top

Production: A production by the Traverse Theater Company produced in association with David Johnson of a song cycle in one act by Mark Ravenhill (libretto) and Conor Mitchell (music). Directed by Stewart Laing.

Creative: Set and costumes, Laing; musical direction, Bob Broad; movement, Theo Clinkard; lighting, Zerlina Hughes, video, Finn Ross. Opened Aug. 1, 2011. Reviewed Aug. 7, 2011. Running time: 1 HOUR.

Cast: Performer - Marc Almond
Video performer - Francis Christeller

More Legit

  • Mean Girls Tina Fey

    Stagecraft Podcast: Tina Fey on Comedy, Broadway and 'Mean Girls'

    Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle […]

  • COLIN CALLENDER STRICTLY BUSINESS Podcast

    Strictly Business Podcast: Colin Callender on 'Cursed Child' and Navigating Co-Productions

    Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle […]

  • Patricia Morison Dead: 'Kiss Me Kate'

    Patricia Morison, Stage Star of 'Kiss Me, Kate,' Dies at 103

    Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle […]

  • Prince Harry Meghan Markle

    Who's on the Royal Wedding Guest List?

    Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle […]

  • In the Heights

    'In the Heights': Warner Bros. Wins Movie Rights to Lin-Manuel Miranda's Musical

    Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle […]

  • School of Rock

    'School of Rock' Captures the Heart and Soul of Messy Adolescence

    Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle […]

  • From left, creators David Henry Hwang,

    David Henry Hwang Hopes Hillary Clinton Will See 'Soft Power'

    Before earning international fame as the lead singer of British electropop band Soft Cell, Marc Almond was an art-school student specializing in performance art. It’s a detail that makes sense of his theatrical collaboration with “Shopping and Fucking” playwright Mark Ravenhill, Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell and “Titanic” designer Stewart Laing. A lonely song cycle […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content