Independent theatre company Four Larks have been flitting around the warehouses of Melbourne for some time now. The Malthouse Theatre has given the company a temporary nest in the Tower Theatre and an opportunity to spread their wings. Their production The Plague Dances looks and sounds beautiful but fails to fly.
With playwright Marcel Dorney, the Four Larks (Mat Diafos Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Jesse Rasmussen) have created an original story set in an insular and religious community in the Middle Ages. An outsider arrives in town and soon the community is gripped by a strange and uncontrollable outbreak of wild dancing.
This story, a kind of medieval Footloose, provides the scaffold upon which a series of musical numbers are balanced.
The songs are beautiful and the highlights of the show. The script, however, fails to engage. There are hints at something deeper under the surface — the feminine body rebelling against the patriarchy, parallels with contemporary ‘crazes’, the willful blindness of religion — but they are, frustratingly, left unexplored.
The story remains undeveloped and the supporting characters mostly functional. In Esther Hannaford, however, the Four Larks have found a real star, a performer who is able to invest in her character a depth of feeling and a strong stage presence.
The Four Larks completely transform the Tower Theatre (Ellen Strasser, Tom Willis and the company) with soil, hessian and timber, creating a medieval church with nature clawing through the cracks. It’s an attractive aesthetic that the company has made its signature style but here it feels merely decorative without the harshness and austerity suggested by the story.
It’s this ‘prettiness’ that throttles this production. We long for an explosion of physicality and raw emotion, a wild dance unleashed, but the climax never materialises.
Instead, The Plague Dances gives us attractive surfaces, beautiful songs and a glib fable without passion at its core.
The details: The Plague Dances played the Malthouse’s Tower Theatre from April 14 to May 6.