BY CHRISTOPHER WALKER
To make sense of the current pandemic, many of us have reached into the past to previous plagues.
Clare Norburn, a talented early music performer, has done this with her own cri de coeur – Love in the Lockdown.
Two tentative lovers begin a tortuous relationship over Zoom, brought together by a shared interest in Boccaccio’s classic The Decameron.
It is a touching starting point for all of us to explore what this pandemic means for us, and to give us hope for our future.
The scale of this pandemic is an event unknown for generations, as became clear from the graph released by the Office for National Statistics this month. In London, the Government estimates there have been nearly 19,000 deaths from Covid.
You have to go back to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918/9 to find anything similar. With no living memory, we reach into the past, exploring historic plagues to help understand our present experience.
There has been renewed interest in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who chronicled the plague that devastated London in 1665. And now this project from Clare Norburn takes us back to The Decameron – written by Boccaccio after the major pandemic of 1348 – the Black Death.
The Decameron – a “sorrowful memory of the late mortal pestilence,” concerns a group of seven women who decide to flee plague-ridden Florence and ride out the pandemic in a gorgeous villa in the Tuscan countryside.
They pick up three good-looking men along the way to lighten their confinement.
The 10 youngsters spend their retreat feasting, and telling each other saucy tales to relieve the boredom – 100 of them.
If only such a remedy had been open to all of us in lockdown!
Clare Norburn’s work is fortunately much shorter. A series of just eight episodes streamed free on YouTube and Facebook, most just 15 minutes long.
The story concerns Giovanni (played by a gritty Alec Newman) and his budding romance with Emilia (the very watchable Rachael Sterling).
Both characters have baggage, and are single for good reason.
Clare Norburn has chosen to document their relationship through a series of Zoom calls, which adds to the awkward nature of their interactions.
For anyone tired of Zoom it is not easy watching. It’s worth contrasting Pasolini’s classic movie version of The Decameron.
The Decameron is referenced in several ways.
Emilia was the name of one of the seven women in Boccaccio’s original, and Rachael’s character is named after her.
The couple have met in person at the start of Covid and Giovanni has used a feigned interest in the Decameron to seduce Emilia.
Emilia is a struggling early music artist with an obsession for the music of that era.
Norburn reminds us the 14th century pandemic had a terrible toll, far worse than Covid, but it also had a string of beneficial after-effects.
Confronted with mortality and a weakening of social norms, female equality advanced rapidly, workers rights began, and the Arts flourished.
Boccaccio’s work was one result, but so was an explosion in musical composition.
Many of these works are inserted into the drama – notably Ecco la Primavera by Francesco Landini.
The music provides a welcome relief from the intensity of the faulting Zoom calls, and the four musicians perform with gusto – Ariane Prussner, Joy Smith, Jorge Jimenez and Clare Norburn herself.
They are familiar to fans of the Omnibus theatre, calling themselves ‘The Telling’.
Love in the Lockdown certainly succeeds in introducing the viewer to an often-neglected area of music, and reminds us that now is a good time to read The Decameron.
Dare we hope as Boccaccio did that just “as the last degree of joy brings with it sorrow, so misery has ever its sequel of happiness”.
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