JANE WENHAM, THE WITCH OF WALKERN – Touring

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★★
Touring then transferring to
London’s Arcola Theatre, 5-30 January

TOURING NEAR YOU:  RICH DARK OOZING EVIL AND FEMINIST DEFIANCE

A fierce bleak play, this. Set in 1712 but, taking the wider world as it is, not un-topical: hangings, tortures, religion turned into a sour power-trip. Here are superstitious dreads and demonization of anyone different, whether homosexual, eccentric or just female.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ reimagining of one of the last witch-trials in England gives us a stimulatingly nasty picture of a village suffering from an oppressive, sly, sadistic hysteria, whipped up by bad sexual secrets and the neurotic, unhinged virginal zealotry of the vicar. The devil hangs over it, and not only in the imagination of hunched crones fantasising over a fire-pit about demonic carnality: rather like the book-group from hell which can’t move on from Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s strong stuff, and Ria Parry’s stark direction serves it well (though some scenes go on a shade too long, and the opening could be clearer). We need to know what has just happened: the hanging of a “witch” whose young daughter Ann (a touching, troubling performance by Hannah Hutch) is grieving her, while the locals chunter prurient satisfaction and blame the dead woman for all the local evils, notably a wife’s repeated miscarriages.

Cut to a strong scene with an elderly Bishop (David Acton), an educated man who dismisses necromancy as “tricks of the light” and nonsense, versus the worryingly stiff young vicar (Tim Delap) who prates “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. He has his eye on Jane Wenham, a reclusive elderly herbalist he thinks is next up for the witch-pricker and the gallows, because she has a pet cockerel which might be Satan. The Bishop wearily tries to dissuade him. But lest we canonize him too soon, it appears that he himself is taking advantage of Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons) a freed slave-woman who is his housekeeper and bedmate.

Meanwhile, in the village the husband of the miscarrying woman is having a fling with the tavern-keeper, and poor lonely Ann has been giving herself unjoyfully to all comers in the barn. But she confides in the seemingly kindly Jane Wenham that her sexual desire is actually for women, and is furiously shooed away as “misshapen”. So when a child drowns, and the sly old demon-fantasisers (Judith Coke brilliantly sinister as Priddy) help the vicar to close the net round Jane, Ann vengefully joins the accusers. The final scenes with Amanda Bellamy as the tormented but defiant Wenham are fast, powerful and important.

It’s a rich dark mix : I can see why Lenkiewicz threw in the lesbianism, not to mention the vicar’s sudden burst of lust and the bishop’s ex-slave. It does paint a complete picture of sexually driven hysteria and exploitation, but these elements make it veer off-piste for a while. As for the references to child abuse and Blind Priddy’s robust description of the devil’s “kingo like a broom handle” in either a dream or a memory, it pulls no punches. As a result of which, I am sorry to say, one of its rural tour dates, the private Ipswich High School for Girls, was panickily cancelled on the pretext of bad language and “safeguarding”.

But you know what? If ever there was a show that GCSE and sixth-form girls needed to see – this being both the Twilight fiction generation and one bombarded with both online porn fantasy and news footage of Iranian hangings – here it is. Yes, you’d need decent thoughtful teachers to run serious discussions and analyses straight afterwards. But to ban it altogether feels worryingly early-60s. Even then, I hope and believe my convent school would (with a gulp) have let it through.

bookings and tour dates http://www.outofjoint.co.uk
rating four

Co- production by Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola, touring in association with Eastern Angles. I saw it at Woodbridge: next up, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 21-24 Oct, then Liverpool Everyman, Bristol Tobacco Factory, Salisbury, and Arcola from 5 Jan.

Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.