Friday, 8 January 2016

Theatre review: Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkern

You don't see a lot of theatre about witch-hunts - presumably because Arthur Miller's 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 religious conviction.

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.

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