A chat with Eyam playwright Matt Hartley.
Press and PR Officer Phoebe Coleman chatted to playwright Matt Hartley about his inspiration for Eyam and why he feels the story needs to be told now, in the Globe theatre.
Phoebe Coleman: Your play is based on the incredible true events that took place in the village of Eyam in the seventeenth century. How did you discover this story?
Matt Hartley: I grew up in the village next door to Eyam – I could see Eyam from the window of my childhood bedroom. So the story has been very present in my life for as long as I can remember. It’s one of the most defining stories in Peak District history and is rightly celebrated for it but I’m also never surprised when people from all parts of the country tell me that they have heard about or even visited Eyam. It’s a story of human endurance and sacrifice which has a great romantic resonance and I think poses that ultimate question in our human psyche: what would we do when faced with such a dilemma?
PC: What’s the writing process been like turning this history into a script?
MH: It’s been a fascinating process as it’s the first time I have tackled a ‘history’ play. Obviously, the story is so compelling itself so I had to think about how and why I want to tell it now. A lot of what has been written about Eyam was done so hundreds of years after the event, there are very few accounts from the time, therefore it tends to be written about with a great deal of romanticism. One of my prime aims was to try and smash that preconception apart. Eyam at that time in history was the Wild West, infamous highwaymen were soon to roam the hills around it, the families were incredibly poor, they had faced political shifts and social changes on an epic scale.
PC: How has the architecture of the Globe influenced the story?
Another theatre asked me to write the play but it didn’t happen there because of timing. Michelle [Terry, Artistic Director] read it and decided to include it in the season, so then we started thinking about how it would work in the playing arena that is the Globe, as opposed to a more traditional theatre space and it has been the most freeing experience both as a writer and for the play. The relationship between audience and performer is unlike any theatre that I have worked in. The Globe is a truly civic space, as an audience member I have always been enthralled by that direct relationship between the performer and viewer, so one of the first parts of re-writing the piece has been about opening up the play so that audience feel as integral, connected and involved in the play as possible. The prime objective of one of the main characters is to sway the people he stands in front of, so it’s important that these performers will have that same direct relationship with the audience.
PC: Why does it feel important to tell this play now?
MH: When I started writing this play it was about a coalition, two people with very opposing views coming together to lead a community, as that’s where we were politically. Now, we’re in very turbulent times as were the inhabitants of Eyam. They had lived through drastic changes in recent history. People were feeling confused and directionless and that’s why there’s so much discord between them. I’m not saying that this is a complete representation of where we are now, but I think it raises questions about what community is. That is the heart of the play: what is community today and can communities work when there are rifts? I think we’re in a similar position as the people of Eyam found themselves in, where we have to examine what we want as a society, so this play feels very relevant and I hope it resonates now.
PC: This feels like a strongly character-driven play. How much, if at all, did you work from historical accounts when bringing these characters to life?
MH: First and foremost, I have taken dramatic license with the documented accounts of the story. A lot of names from the script will be familiar from historical accounts and in some places I’ve remained true to that; the gravedigger, Howe, is infamously reported as being of the type of character that I present because that’s too rich not to use. But I’ve made changes where things could be more dramatically interesting. For example, condensing the Mompesson’s, Thomas Stanley and George Viccars arrival into one day. And character choices such as Edward Cooper who would have been about four years old when he died of the plague, but I wrote him in as a nineteen-year-old boy on the cusp of a life-changing event because that allowed me to ask questions about the relationship between mothers and sons. Some characters are amalgamations of multiple villagers. Once you start thinking what characters want, what drives them, then you invent other characters to compliment and provide conflict with the emerging dynamics.
PC: There are so many personal narratives at work here, was it ever tempting to follow the experience of just one character?
MH: I think because we’re talking about a community that loses so many people, we have to care enough about individuals so that we feel their loss. There are more than three hundred people in Eyam at the start of the play and we need a sense of village life. It was very much a conscious decision to have a drone-like look at the entire village. I hope that by including a rich and expansive number of characters the play can be a celebration of working people, those who are regularly forgotten and written out of history.
PC: The script manages to be both incredibly sad and funny. How important is humour and levity to the storytelling?
MH: These are people going through the most extreme moments of their lives – what do you do in those situations? Do you wallow in the difficulty or do you try to find a bit of light? In some of these situations, laughter is the only escape. Also, some of these characters are polar opposites of each other and the conflict this presents is automatically ripe for a little bit of humour. They present obstacles to each other and make each other’s lives difficult. This play is like a funny western and Eyam is the Wild West.
PC: What has it been like to work with Adele Thomas on this project?
MH: Joyous. Adele is a longstanding friend and this has been the perfect alliance. I had always hoped that Adele would direct this play, regardless of how it happened, and serendipitously Michelle wanted Adele to do it too. Adele knows the space as she’s worked in it before and this knowledge is so important because I’ve only been in the theatre as an avid viewer. She’s helped me guide the play in the direction of the Globe. She works with such bold and brilliant images and has such a clear sense of history that she has helped make the play provocative and ripe with debate. Most of our cast have been in rep on The Winter’s Tale so they’re more firmly formed than a company would usually be at this early stage in rehearsals. Every day in rehearsals is a mixed bag; we’re mixing songs with dancing and history lessons.
PC: What role will singing and dancing play in this production?
MH: Very significant. I think it’s going to change people’s preconceptions of what the seventeenth century sounded like! This is a play where people are aggressive and they speak their mind. That is absolutely at the heart of the music and movement. But there will also be an ethereal, twisted, haunting, sound. I’ve been quite prescriptive about where music is going to be because I know that we need moments of storytelling that aren’t just textual.
Eyam closes on 13 October.
Photography by Marc Brenner