Lyttelton, National Theatre – until 23 May 2020
There are moments in Lucy Kirkwood’s new play The Welkin that are just outstanding. The opening tableau of silhouetted women engaged in housework is one for the ages, the early montage of women being empanelled onto a jury is as compelling a piece of social history as has ever been committed to the stage as well as looking stunning, and the final scene is equally full of iconic imagery (that veil, that walk, that ribbon, that realisation!).
Set on the Norfolk/Suffolk borders in 1759, the play focuses on a quirk of English justice at the time. A child has died and Sally Poppy has been sentenced for the crime (by men) but as she is claiming to be pregnant – something which if true, would commute her sentence from death to transportation – a “jury of matrons” must decide if she is telling the truth. Thus 12 local woman are summoned and locked in a room to determine her fate.
James Macdonald’s production is at its strongest in the aforementioned book-ending sections, when the breadth of Bunny Christie’s imagination in her design choices can be unleashed. The empanelling scene where each woman is introduced with a biographical snippet (21 children and 3 husbands; menopausal sweats; 12 miscarriages…) is a masterclass in character study in miniature, setting the scene for the much grander, lengthier debates in store.
Here, The Welkin winds perhaps just a little too much, especially after the interval, as the group’s uncompromising discussions about Sally’s body and vivid recollections about their own reproductive history morph into something a touch unwieldy. Plot twist follows plot twist and though a shift into melodrama isn’t of itself a bad thing, here it toys perilously close to testing the patience as deliberations end up delayed once again.
That said, a ferociously good ensemble leave you never less than gripped. Maxine Peake leads the way as redoubtable midwife Lizzy, Cecilia Noble blesses us with another of her finely tuned scene stealers, Haydn Gwynne elegantly negotiates one of the more improbable moments, and Ria Zmitrowicz continues her development into one of our finest actresses as the spiky Sally. Philip McGinley, Wendy Kweh and Zainab Hasan also impress, heck the whole company do.
The Welkin ends up as a weighty stuff, not just in running time but in the subtle ways its subject matter reveals itself to be so much more than first sight might suggest. The power class holds over justice, just how much men’s ignorance of female biology allows them such control, how the idea of an inconvenient truth has always existed. Much here to think about and much here to appreciate in a historical epic that demands to be heard.
Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
The Welkin is booking at the National Theatre until 23rd May
The Welkin will be broadcast to over 700 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 21st May. More information here.
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