When we learned about “the Plague” at school, how many of us suspected that we would ever live through one of our own? Now admittedly, Covid – as serious as it undeniably was and continues to be – could hardly be said to be on the same scale as the Black Death, but in A Plague On All Your Houses, writer and director Marcia Kelson argues that humanity’s responses to such a widespread catastrophic event have actually changed very little over the centuries – and there’s no reason to suspect we’ve learnt anything this time around either.
In biblical Egypt, the Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites from slavery, even when threatened with the death of his own child. In 19th century France, two winemakers are horrorstruck when they realise an aphid brought in from America will wipe out their entire vineyard – but quickly find a way to take financial advantage of the situation. In 2022, our very own Boris Johnson is still refusing to impose Covid restrictions, despite the efforts of an increasingly frustrated Chris Whitty to convince him. And in 2025 – well, who knows where we’ll all be by then.
Kelson casually drops expressions throughout that are all too familiar to a Covid-era audience – lockdown, self-isolation, and even the dreaded “Hands, Face, Space” all come up across the centuries, along with the weary refrain, “What a time to be alive” – and in doing so draws clear parallels between the different events. Perhaps Elizabethans didn’t realise they were “going into lockdown” when they boarded up their houses and closed the theatres to keep out the Plague, but the end result was pretty much the same.
Four actors (Catherine Allison, Morgan Black, Ben May and Richard McKenna) play a variety of characters from different backgrounds, proving once and for all that disease is no respecter of class, despite what Bill and Sandra, bored passengers on A-Deck of a Covid-afflicted cruise ship, might believe. Perhaps surprisingly, given the grim subject matter, there are actually a lot of laughs to be had – though perhaps it’s more despairing laughter as we watch the characters make the same mistakes over and over again – and the cast revel in their larger than life roles, most memorably Ben May in his eerily accurate portrayal of Boris Johnson, and Morgan Black as Phylloxera, an American aphid newly arrived in France and ready to cause mischief. The musical number in the middle, performed by Rachel Wilkes, is unexpected and over almost as soon as it begins, but on the night I attended, the audience seemed to have no hesitation about enthusiastically joining in.
Ultimately, A Plague On All Your Houses doesn’t really teach us anything we don’t already know; to anyone who’s paying attention, it’s been clear for some time that our leaders have learnt little from the pandemics of history or even from the experience of the last two years. But it’s an enjoyable hour-long history lesson, and if nothing else, a reminder that though it may sometimes feel like it, we’re far from the first generation to go through an event like this – and nor, depressingly, will we be the last.
A Plague On All Your Houses continues at Riverside Studios until 16th July.