On tour until January 30
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern
Shades of The Crucible, inevitably – which should have been more about the witches, protested one lady indignantly at the post-show Q&A session, with a postscript: some
cheek, Arthur Miller writing in a women’s voice. But here is the Witches’ Tale, and all boxes ticked by female playwright, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. It’s a heady brew too, with such unpleasant tasting ingredients as child abuse and mysogyny, both as horrifyingly prevalent today, from the recent film, Suffragettes, to the constant activities of those other mythical creatures, trolls. How those who believe themselves to be so pure of heart, especially it seems when accusing the innocent, continue pursuing their victims with evil glee.
1700s Hertfordshire, and the eponymous heroine, or leading lady (and admittedly neither seem quite the exact description for the elderly wisewoman, though her courage and resilience be never in doubt) is accused of murder when a little girl drowns and the whole village takes side, whether for or agin. Such contradiction is immediately established by the set, the action taking place in the shadow of a cross cum gibbet, with most scenes set either in the alehouse or on a blasted heath. The whole thing seethes with claustrophobic frustration.
Notably, there are no less than 5 strong female roles, with Rachel Sanders doubling up so effectively, you might assume that Bridget Hurst had not come back on stage at the end; she excelled as much as the grieving mother as she did playing the not so merry Widow Higgins. Similarly, David Acton was as proficient as the unusually enlightened Samuel Crane, as he was when seedy Saul Paterson. More good stuff from Andrew Macklin as Fergal McGuire, in hot pursuit of the Widow, as well as from his rival, the silent, sleeping partner, Samuel Crane (Tim Delap), determined to see, indeed, force justice to be done, no matter at what cost.
This outstanding cast also included Judith Coke, chilling as blind Priddy Goodstern, her implacable malice matched by the inscrutable narration of terrible stories, and Cat Simmons, the proud, placid and courageous Kemi Martha, Hutchinson’s adored plaything. And it is headed by Amanda Bellamy as the wretched Jane, with an equally compelling portrayal from Hannah Hutch, treacherous Ann Thorn who is later appalled by the consequences of her spite.
At times, the dialogue seems more in tune with modern day, but attitudes, particularly intolerance have changed so little. This is a powerful piece of work – quite spellbinding.