The Witch of Walkern - November 2015
The Witch of Walkern - November 2015
Time of enlightenment
Religion, sex, sorcery and the supernatural take centre stage at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in its new production of The Witch of Walkern.
It’s a brave playwright who tackles the subject made famous by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible but BAFTA-award-winning writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz has approached the terror from a different angle.
Based on true events in the small Hertfordshire village of Walkern in 1712, Lenkiewicz focuses on how fear reaches fever pitch when inhabitants search for someone to blame after a young local girl drowns.
The obvious target is the village’s aged cunning woman, Jane Wenham, brilliantly played by Amanda Bellamy.
She is dragged into the gossiping mire of acrimonious village life filled with age-old resentments, fears and desires.
Directed by Ria Perry, the cast includes another village outsider, former female slave, Kemi, (suberbly portrayed by Cat Simmons) who is housekeeper for the local liberal Bishop who doesn’t struggle too hard to overcome his guilt at bedding the beauty he has freed and taught to read and right.
The play opens in the aftermath of the last witch hanging.
Plenty of superstitious villagers are still keen to get rid of the rot of bewitching and only happy to discuss it over pints at the local.
It reminds you of so many modern drinking bores who brag on about curing society’s ills.
After the child drowns her distraught mother blames witchery and Jane in particular.
The hair’s breadth trigger is pulled and violence along with illicit passions bubble to the surface and boil over.
The new parson, Samuel Crane (Tim Delap) is the lustful virgin, a bible-basher drafted in to purge the parish.
He sees witches in every nook and cranny as he spies on libertarian Bishop Hutchinson who dismisses the notion of witches.
The Bishop battles the devil in his own britches as he puts Kemi on knee and in his bed.
Kemi objectively sees villagers for what they are.
She adroitly handles the Bishop, distraught mother, cunning woman and the lovelorn daughter of a hanged witch, with side-stepping aplomb to escape them all for an independent life.
The play is deeply engaging and even funny – sexy local widow and landlady Wiggins, (Rachel Sanders) holds her own with the desperate vicar who asks her to pray then sleep with him.
She is already sleeping with the husband of a woman who has lost five babies and blames that on sorcery.
There is a disturbingly brutal scene which is extremely hard to watch where the witch-pricker bloodily stabs Jane, then disrobes her.
There are a couple of surprising twists to this bewitching tale in which everyone has their secrets, guilts, yearnings and sadness aired.
Lenkiewicz highlights how mob violence, fear and gossip all too quickly target the weak, vulnerable and voiceless.
Fundamentalist religion’s ongoing antagonism and oppression towards female sexuality is Lenkiewicz's 300-year-old message to a 21st century world where women are still stoned and burnt to death for imaginary misdemeanours.
The simple but very effective set makes good use of atmospheric lighting and haunting music.
Where I disengaged with the play was the lack of space to let it breathe.
There simply weren’t enough quieter moments to allow the horror of what was happening to sink in.
And the chicken that’s supposed to be Jane’s familiar - get rid of that prop.
The Witch of Walkern is on until Saturday, November 7.
For more information telephone 0117 902 0344 or click HERE.
The Tobacco Factory theatres at Raleigh Road, Bristol, produce and present excellent performing art in unique, intimate spaces.
Will a jam-packed programme of diverse and exciting shows, workshops and events, from classic and contemporary theatre, to theatre for families, comedy, dance, music, opera and puppetry it is a destination venue for theatre lovers.
Read more about its productions by clicking HERE.
PHOTOS: © Richard Davenport