The Crucible is so widely regarded (if not necessarily by me) as a masterpiece, that anything else would be held up to comparison. It's not put off Rebecca Lenkiewicz though, as she not only revisits the paranoia in Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkern, she also finds a new and bitingly topical metaphor in the theme: Society's poor, old and disabled being demonised, scapegoated and ultimately disposed of. The village of Walkern in Generic Rural Accentshire saw its share of witch trials and executions in the 17th century, and decades later, when everyone thinks things are calming down, they flare up again. As the play opens a woman has just been hanged as a witch, leaving behind a distressed and sexually confused daughter, Ann (Hannah Hutch.)
The new young priest, Crane (Tim Delap,) has a passion for rooting out demons and is
sure she won't be the last. He comes up against Francis Hutchinson (David Acton,) a
bishop on sabbatical with no real authority in the region, but who remembers the
last round of persecutions and, sure witches don't exist, tries to dissuade Crane
from fanning another bloodbath.
Although we do meet the titular Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy) a couple of scenes in,
she starts out as a peripheral character. Instead Lenkiewicz is interested in giving
us an idea of the village as a whole, its guilty secrets and grudges: Blind old
Priddy Goodstern (Judith Coke) glories in talk of demonic visitations, trying to get
others to incriminate themselves, while Ann believes she's evil because of her
attraction to the bishop's housekeeper and lover, freed slave Kemi Martha (Cat
Simmons.) Crane's fury at Fergal's (Andrew Macklin) affair with the Widow Higgins
(Rachel Sanders) stems more from his own guilty attraction to her than from
This is the atmosphere in which, when a child dies in mysterious circumstances,
fingers are pointed at Jane, the local "cunning woman" who's cured many ailments
over the years, but as she gets older will need to be supported by the village -
unless they find a way to get rid of her. After a few duds Lenkiewicz is back on
form with a script full of bitter ironies, not least of all that the disabilities
which make Jane both a burden and a suspect, were actually caused when she was
tortured under suspicion during the last round of trials. There's room for humour
too though, often coming from the villagers' insistence that Jane is having an
affair with a chicken.
Ria Parry's production is measured but quietly brutal when it needs to be,
particularly when the Pricker (Macklin) comes to "test" Jane with ruthless
bloodletting, Bellamy turning in a performance of tortured dignity. Also good is
Sanders' Widow Higgins, seemingly damned by her own empathy, Acton's impassioned
bishop and Simmons' Kemi Martha, determined to get out of a position that isn't as
free as it seems (as well as get out of Walkern before her skin colour makes her the
next target.) Simmons also provides a few musical moments that add to the atmosphere
of an interesting, surprisingly understated look at an incendiary* topic.
Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkern by Rebecca Lenkiewicz is booking until the 30th of
January at Arcola Studio 1.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.
*not literally; contrary to popular belief "witches" weren't burned, and Lenkiewicz
makes it clear from the start that hanging is the fate awaiting anyone found guilty.