Theatre review: Defoe’s Plague, La Mama

A befuddled but promising exploration of the life and work of Daniel Defoe.
Defoe. Image is a man in 18th century garb, with a white wig, sitting in an armchair and holding up his arms in a querying stance.

A ye olde Plague Doctor, burning incense, greets the audience as they mill about their seats. It seems a fitting touch for a show titled Defoe’s Plague. Is it too soon to talk of plagues in Melbourne, a city that experienced one of the longest COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in the world? Maybe so. But, despite what the title suggests, Defoe’s Plague doesn’t dwell too long on the topic of living in a pandemic. 

In fact, the production doesn’t dwell on anything for long. Creators Alicia Benn-Lawler, Phil Roberts and Shannon Woollard explore: pandemic comparisons, a biography of Daniel Defoe’s life, and discussions about truth-telling in fiction and non-fiction writing. In the 70-minute runtime, the story chases these ideas round in circles to bewildering effect. 

Perhaps also due to the short runtime, the team assumes audiences have a strong knowledge of Defoe’s historical context, primarily the Jacobite rebellions. For some, this assumption will prove correct. A case in point being that when this reviewer attended a number of audience members knew the tune to the 18th century satirical song ‘The Vicar of Bray’. Others not so knowledgeable will be left to fill in the gaps, adding to the sense of confusion. 

It did seem as if this reviewer attended three shows too soon, however, as performers Roberts and Woollard struggled at times with memorisation. This slowed the pacing down and at times hampered coherence of their lines. 

Fortunately, there is enough wit and intrigue present that Defoe’s Plague doesn’t overstay its welcome. Roberts and Woollard have great chemistry with Woollard often functioning like a Ghost of Christmas Past, calling Defoe (Roberts) out on his life and creative choices. The dramatic moments feel realistic and they both work confidently when addressing the audience and pulling laughs from them. 

The snippets the audience is given of Defoe’s life and the production’s insinuation of his character hint at a biographical roller coaster romp that would delight many. 

Read: Book review: The Naturalist of Amsterdam, Melissa Ashley

As the work currently stands, however, Defoe’s Plague will chiefly appeal to fans of Daniel Defoe and those well-versed in 18th century English history. 

Defoe’s Plague
La Mama

Director: Alicia Benn-Lawler
Cast: Phil Roberts and Shannon Woollard
Devised by: Alicia Benn-Lawler, Phil Roberts and Shannon Woollard

Defoe’s Plague will be performed until 12 November 2023.

Jenna Schroder is an emerging arts critic, with a background in dance and voice, and an organiser at the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance. Outside of her union activism, Jenna can be found performing at The Improv Conspiracy, around the Melbourne comedy scene and producing independent work across multiple platforms. Twitter: @jennaschroder00