Saturday, 15 November 2014

Theatre review: The Witch of Edmonton

Curses, demon dogs and, worst of all, enforced Morris dancing in the final show of the RSC's Roaring Girls season in the Swan. William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford and possibly other unknown writers worked together on The Witch of Edmonton to get it quickly to the stage in 1621 after a woman was hanged in Edmonton for witchcraft. Mother Sawyer (Eileen Atkins) is sick of being accused of witchcraft and used as a scapegoat for all the town's ills, and wishes aloud that she actually did have the powers she's accused of, so she could take revenge for all the abuse she receives. Her wish is heard by the devil, who takes the shape of a large black Dog (Jay Simpson,) and offers her the traditional deal of doing evil on her behalf, in return for her soul. Dog variously possesses and enchants the townspeople, but their downfall comes largely from the revelation of sins they'd been up to already.

Chief among them are the actions of Frank Thorney (Ian Bonar,) who's just married Susan (Faye Castelow) for her dowry, but his page is actually his disguised, pregnant first wife Winnifride (Shvorne Marks.) Although the baby might actually be her master Sir Arthur's (David Rintoul,) I wasn't entirely clear on that part.

In any case the people of Edmonton's misbehaviour comes long before Mother Sawyer's powers do, and though Dog lends a hand with Frank's biggest crime, his lack of remorse is all his own. But, in keeping with a season that's looked at the harsh treatment of any woman who dares to stand up to men, his bigamy and murder prove easier to forgive than Sawyer's curses.

Gregory Doran directs a production that occasionally hints at just how bonkers this show could be - an evil Morris dance, and a scene where Sawyer tickles her demonic familiar as if he's an ordinary lapdog are utterly bizarre. But they're too few and far between, and I found myself wishing that instead of her disappointing White Devil, Maria Aberg had been given this to direct instead; I imagine she'd have had a lot of fun with it. Unfortunately in between the big setpieces Doran goes for a rather plain, reverential approach that the play isn't quite good enough to support; and the comic subplot of Dog taking an interest in Cuddy Banks (Daffydd Llyr Thomas) and his group of mummers is just tiresome.

It's left to Niki Turner's design to come up with the oddest and most memorable elements of the production, like Dog, which involves a practically naked Simpson coated in black makeup, with a codpiece and spiny tail. Except as someone pointed out that it looks less like a tail and more like anal beads on the way out, that's all I can see now. I imagine it's not the intention either that Joe Bannister's ginger Farrah Fawcett wig be one of the more memorable bits of comedy, but there we are. Atkins' anti-heroine livens things up in her gloriously spiky way - her reaction to the demonic pact demanding her body as well as her soul is priceless. But as title roles go it's a pretty small one, so Atkins isn't enough to rescue a tamer production than the play could probably have done with.

Also, if everyone in the cast could decide whether or not they're doing an accent, that would be good too.

The Witch of Edmonton by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford &c is booking in repertory until the 29th of November at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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