Without a doubt, one of the most devastating events to take place in Europe the past 800 years has been the Bubonic plague (Black Death). Making its way across the Silk Road, the Plague affected every strata of society. Its greatest hold on Europe was during the 14th century (its mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales) but it periodically appeared up until the 19th century. Not truly knowing the cause of the pandemic, many offered ‘cures’ – or at least remedies to stave off the symptoms for a while. This is where the play begins.
Written by Christine Foster and directed by Adam Bambrough, Four Thieves’ Vinegar – named after the remedy used to supposedly ward off the Plague – takes place in Newgate Prison, London. There, amateur ‘alchemist’ Matthias Richards (Nick Howard-Brown) is imprisoned for running into debt, a result of trying to find a lasting cure. His solitude, however, is disrupted by jailer Simon Holt (Bruce Kitchener) and the two prisoners he’s brought to share the cell. The younger of the two, Jennet Flyte (Kate Huntsman) is initially afraid of Richards because of the alchemical symbols he’s placed on the wall, which she associates with the occult. She is also pregnant – not that will stop her from being hanged. Her ‘companion’ Hannah Jeakes (Pip Henderson) is a good deal older than her and passes herself out as a ‘nurse for hire’.
From here on in, the play is very much (in a good way) like a 17th century version of Sartre’s No Exit with two women and man in a confined space, all disagreeing about something. The primary source of contention? Richards’ ‘cure’ for the Plague and whether the ladies are willing to part with what gold they have, as its inherent alchemical ‘purity’ would ‘guarantee; his elixir will work. But there’s more to either woman than meets the eye and their history, to some degree, determines all their futures…
The four principal actors are all excellent in their respective roles, but like all good productions, what underpins Four Thieves’ Vinegar is its script. Details of 17th century are both familiar and educational, as the ‘secret’ history of London’s streets revealed themselves (think of the nursery rhyme Oranges And Lemons…). Far from being unremittingly bleak, black humour is a big part of the play, as the characters look at the absurdities of ‘modern living’ while death is staring them in the face.
I’ve been to the Barons Court Theatre on-and-off for many years and in all that time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the theatre downstaiirs painted and used to maximum effect as I’ve seen with Four Thieves’ Vinegar. It’s perhaps a clichéd thing to say, but Foster’s play was ‘made’ for that space. Set intimately ‘in the round’, the audience is practically eavsdropping on the characters’final anxious moments…
© Michael Davis 2017
Four Thieves’ Vinegar runs at Barons Court Theatre until 26th March 2017.