Star rating: ****
The big question was always going to be whether the Traverse Theatre’s starry collaboration between playwright Marc Ravenhill and singer Marc Almond would actually succeed as a true piece of theatre. It’s essentially a staged song cycle, with music by Conor Mitchell and designs and direction by Stewart Laing, using just piano and Almond’s soaring voice to chart a man’s survival in a time of plague – notionally 17th-century London, although references are general enough for a contemporary reading.
He encounters suspicion when a butcher refuses to take money he has touched; he is shocked then grateful when his lover refuses to kiss him for fear of passing on the disease; and he buys a wig after shaving his head in an effort to prevent infection.
Allusions to AIDS are clear – most explicitly when the protagonist’s modern-day male love lifts his shirt to reveal the marks of his contagion. Sex and death are everywhere, melded in Almond’s decadent yet focused performance. After a slightly hesitant start, he commands the stage, fixing the audience with an impudent stare and daring us to look away.
Composer Mitchell’s writing for his voice is bold and challenging, with angular, often atonal melodies whose expressiveness nevertheless provides an ideal vehicle for Almond’s passionate tenor voice, and glorious vibrato. Some of his piercing floated tones are truly spine-tingling.
Admittedly, it’s not an easy work: with its dense, sometimes oblique words set to challenging, Britten-esque music, and its all-pervasive seriousness, the piece makes significant demands on its audience. But such is the focus and passion of the two performers that they take us with them through every note.
A moving filmed conclusion sees a ghostly Almond crossing today’s London Bridge, and a final coup de theatre, breathtaking in its simplicity, reaffirms the true theatrical credentials of this praiseworthy project.
Ten Plagues, Traverse Theatre, until 28 August (not 15), times vary