Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sabbat at the Orange Tree Theatre

During the ‘witch craze’ of the Jacobean period and the years that followed only a comparatively small number of people were put to death in Britain (in Europe they were altogether quicker to take a torch to those they suspected of dabbling). This is why the trial and subsequent execution of the Pendle witches has left such a long-lasting psychological mark on the region – it was an aberration.

It was also one of the best documented of all the witch trials thanks to the efforts of Thomas Potts and his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. The bulk of the accused lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire; they were drawn from two families: both sprawling, poor, marginal and headed by an ageing matriarch, a source of fear and upset to their better off neighbours. Bad blood between the two families may have fuelled the waves of accusations; the key witness, Jennet, was a girl of only nine who was pressed to give evidence against members of her family.

Richard Shannon’s 2008 play has been revived by The Dukes, Lancaster, to mark the 400th anniversary of the trials. Drawing on Potts for inspiration, Shannon simplifies what was a complex and messy affair, focussing on just four characters: Richard Howell, the Justice of the Peace for Pendle; his young wife Judith; the simple and easily swayed Jennet; and Alice Nutter, who stood out among the accused as a widow of means and covert keeper of the Catholic faith. Shannon imagines a situation in which Howell’s (fictionalised) wife becomes friendly with Nutter during her ill-fated pregnancy, and how – following the baby’s still birth - grief and suspicion blinker an essentially decent man when the accusations start to fly.

Robert Calvert’s magistrate is an intriguing figure to begin with, authoritarian and unshakeable, but kindly; this shading is lost as Howell comes to stand in for the law, becoming increasingly reactionary and aggressive in his actions and utterly unwilling to listen to reason. Christine Mackie’s Alice is intelligent and independent of spirit, a little too unblemished to begin with, but the slow erosion of her hope following her arrest is poignant to watch. Nisa Cole has the trickiest task, playing Jennet as a girl who is lost in her own head but not without a capacity for self-preservation; her Jennet half-believes the things she is saying, that she does indeed possess dark powers.

Amy Leach’s production trots out a number of Witch Play tropes. As well as being a Catholic, Nutter is also a healer and midwife with a bag full of cordials and charms. But while there is much talk of incubi and familiars, of teet-suckling and the devil’s mark, Shannon grounds the play in more human terms.

Miriam Nabarro’s in-the-round set with its edging of sawdust is simple but evocative and while the quartet of dangling meat-hooks suggest something Saw-like may be in the offing they’re effectively used to represent the four walls of the dungeon at Lancaster Castle in which the accused were held as well as, finally and poignantly, the gallows. Where Shannon’s play succeeds most is in conveying the ease with which such a flame could take hold, the malignancy of whispers, and a willingness to scapegoat the socially undesirable that still strikes a chord.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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