WHEN a ship docked at Melcombe Regis near Weymouth in 1348, carrying treasures from the Far East, via Europe, it also carried the then usual cargo of fleas.
These were no ordinary Siphonaptera, but carriers of the bubonic plague. Its devastating effects, from its Dorset landing all across the land of King Edward III, became known as the Black Death.
Six hundred and seventy two years later, another plague has devastated the country, again with its origins (apparently) in China.
What have we learned in the way we have faced it and dealt with it? That’s what writer Sue Ashby and eight members of North Dorset’s Taboo Theatre have been researching and rehearsing, ready for the performances of the wittily titled Flea the Pandemic which re-opened The Exchange in Sturminster Newton after months of lockdown.
The large Stour Hall allowed the audience to be socially distanced at tables, and the wide stage meant that Craig White’s production could feature carefully-distanced actors, without losing the intensity of the story. They chose the time-honoured device of an identically dressed chorus, out of which the various characters emerged to tell their stories.
Imagining how the High Sheriff of Dorsetshire might have addressed the citizens was made much easier by the lead of our illustrious Prime Minister. This was not a caricature Boris, but a precursor, equally as concerned with the serfs continuing to keep the wheels of medieval society turning (while of course washing their hands and staying at home) as his modern-day counterpart.
It added much-needed humour to the dreadful catalogue of death – 20 million people, or a third of the population of Europe, died.
While the Dorset folk were attempting to flea (flee) the plague, we learned about a wealthy merchant, a rich lady of the manor, devout and selfless nuns, a peddler inadvertently spreading the disease from community to community, a priest and the forgotten serfs.
The excellent cast, who determinedly overcame all the difficulties put up by the changing COVID regulations during the rehearsal period, were Robert Cowley, Holly Fripp, Toby Greenfield, Annie Henschel, Giles Henschel, Sara Quinnell, Joe Watson and Tania White.
It was a huge challenge to mount this timely play, and the company is hoping that further performances may be arranged in the coming weeks and months. Keep an eye open for news of them.
Flea the Pandemic is the tonic we need, to show that there’s nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes pointed out, and that we will come out at the end of it.
The articulated flea was made by Ann and Graham Baseden.