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.