Love in the time of epidemic

By Rhonda Dredge

One of the plays cancelled last week in the CBD was Hell Ship, due to have opened on St Patrick’s Day at fortyfivedownstairs. 

Instead of rehearsing, actor and writer Michael Veitch was talking to CBD News about the healing message of the play. 

“It’s ironic that a play about an epidemic was cancelled by an epidemic,” he said. 

The one-man show tracks the tragic journey of the Ticonderoga to Melbourne in 1852, when a quarter of the passengers died of typhus. 

Michael plays the part of the ship’s young surgeon who has collapsed into a desperate heap down near the Antarctic Circle.

In through the door of his freezing infirmary steps a young Scottish woman who offers to help.

Her name is Annie. She quickly gets to work, wrapping up the dead, and stays by the surgeon’s side until the cutter struggles into Port Phillip Bay. 

The ship wasn’t allowed to enter Melbourne when it finally arrived. Instead, passengers were offloaded at the then-new Quarantine Station near Portsea.

The governor went to visit and the incident caused quite a stir in early Melbourne, Michael said.

But it is his deep engagement with the play rather than the historical facts that brings a tear to the audience.

For the surgeon was Michael’s great, great grandfather and the volunteer nurse his great, great grandmother.

He said there were lessons to be learned from the couple’s plight for today’s situation. 

“Epidemics do pass. We have to be kind. We have to be patient. We have to be resilient. We have to make space for people and look after them,” he said. 

November sunshine and sea bathing helped passengers recover from the typhus bacteria, which was carried by body lice.

Hell Ship is based on a book of the same name, which has sold out following a short season of the play at the Port Fairy Folk Festival.

Michael hopes to reschedule the play later in the year for Melbourne audiences •  

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