A play loosely based on Britain’s supposed last ever witch trial has much to say today, of scapegoats and frenzy; hysteria and persecution. Throw in a kind of enlightened slavery, homosexuality and misogyny and you’ve got a heady brew of issues that trouble us still. In Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern we get a whole Radio 4’s worth of moral dilemmas and ugly truths – it’s not edifying but it has undeniable power.
The interweaving storylines of the Walkern residents bring to mind a little of Llareggub – giving us snippets of lost love, gothic lust and Chaucerian sex farce. A blind ghoul who gets her kicks listening to the noises at the gibbet; a promiscuous maid who has enjoyed union with most people in the village; a widowed landlady comforting a married man; a woman who believes Satan comes to her at night in search of more than moral corruption.
All the residents seem to be complicit in the acts of indulging their sexuality – it’s no surprise when Samuel Crane, an eager young priest new to the parish, finds the devil in everything he sees – and even himself. In the shape of the crooked cunning woman Jane Denham he finds exactly what he is looking for. Vengeance, accusation and death are not far behind.
Certainly it’s not hard to see Matthew Hopkins and even glimpses of The Wicker Man from the world of folk horror in The Witch Of Walkern. There are inflections of Antichrist here – the many injustices visited upon women by a patriarchal society. It’s rich, dark and vivid and there’s very little to fault in the taut production, particularly its excellent cast. In the script there are, perhaps, oddities that don’t come off in the production.
It’s never clear if the occasional laughs from the audience are intended or simply the result of an uneven tone. We never understand the significance of strawberry jam to the local bishop, nor why Denham’s rooster is called James – both resulted in humourous but uncertain reactions from the audience. But their very inclusion lends them a significance. Like Checkhov’s Gun these things appear to be flagged up because their importance will be one evident later in the play, but they drift off into the ether like smoke from burning sage.
After the high drama and macabre penultimate acts – as hard to watch as anything on this new Everyman stage and even the one that preceded it – the various conclusions the play’s characters find can’t help but feel underpowered and even rather trite. The one subplot that is instrumental in Wenham’s persecution is cut off before it develops, and the motivations of characters shift as the narrative demands them.
It’s as if writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz can’t make up her mind as where the story’s heart lies, so while we build towards a witch trial we get a lesbian love story, barren love affair, frustrated clergyman, a noble savage, kinky bishop and cock-starved wenches. It’s a heady brew but it does allow space for the cast to get to grips with their roles and treat the audience to some wonderful work.
David Acton as a bishop, frustrated in various ways, and Rachel Sanders as the widow are standouts in a very strong cast. Amanda Bellamy delivers an emotional performance like punch to the gut. By the end it’s hard to differentiate the indignities suffered by Bellamy and the titular character she plays. Not for the faint-hearted.
The Witch Of Walkern is as patchwork as Wenham’s ragged outfit – the various strands of its plot intertwining and tones overlapping roughly. But, as with the cunning woman’s tunic, it’s not without meaning nor importance.
Jane Wenham: The Witch Of Walkern
Until Saturday 31 October