(reviewed on 25 September – preview)
The 1712 trial of an elderly widow living in the Hertfordshire village of Walkern is often seen as England’s last witchcraft trial. It’s not, but the story – as told in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play premièred at the Palace Theatre Watford before a national tour lasting into 2016 – remains a gripping one.
Lenkiewicz has taken a dramatist’s licence with her characters, though her fictional Rev Samuel Crane is just as fanatical and unpleasant as the real-life Rev Francis Bragge and mixed-up teenager Ann Thorn is as disturbed as her factual counterpart Anne. Designer James Button uses a suitably earth-colour palette, while director Ria Parry uses the flexibility of the settings to keep the story swirling as it should do.
We join the story just after Ann (Hannah Hutch) has seen her own mother hanged for witchcraft. the women of the village are sympathetic enough, but the older ones feel vulnerable. Ann is to be taken into the household of a bishop Francis Hutchinson (David Acton), suffering an enforced sabbatical from his Irish diocese, who is himself viewed with suspicion by the locals. This is acerbated by his housekeeper Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons) being a nubile negress.
If Hutchinson is the voice of enlightened Christianity, Crane (Tim Delap) is from the Matthew Hopkins mould; he is determined to root out witchcraft, country beliefs and pastimes. He has already successfully prosecuted Eleanor Thorn, now his sights are set on Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy) – who has already suffered interrogation under torture when accused some years earlier.
Jane is understandably bitter, trapped as she is in a backwoods rural location where her solitude, the leg which has never healed after the torture and her hard-learned skills with herbs is as feared as used by her neighbours. She finds Ann troubling as the girl veers from ingratiating herself where she sees a possible advantage and almost hysterical despair; this is very well portrayed by Hutch.
The most sympathetic characters, other than Hutchinson and itinerant farm labourer Fergal (Andrew Macklin), are the local inn-keeper Widow Higgins (Rachel Sanders) and Kemi. Sanders also doubles Bridget Hurst, a baby-farmer whose daughter Effie’s drowning sparks the full fury of the witch-hunt. Simmons plays an intriguing character, both caring for and resentful of her complex relationship with Hutchinson, whose hummed and softly sung settings of Donne poems (Max Pappenheim is the composer) act as a sort of Greek chorus for the action.
I suspect that most theatre-goers will find it difficult not to draw parallels with Miller’s The Crucible, also a play about suspected witchcraft and the savage hysteria it generates. Lenkiewicz’s play is perhaps more strident in its characterisation of the accused and the accusers, and there is a distinct 21st century air to it. But all writers of historical drama filter the past through their own contemporary lens. In some ways 1712 is distant. In others, it’s chipping away at our own sense of perhaps too complacent 2015 security.
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern plays at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 3 October and then tours Essex and Suffolk until 17 October. It also visits the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (21-24 October), the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool (27-31 October), the Tobacco Factory, Bristol (3-7 November), the Salisbury Playhouse (10-14 November) and the Arcola Theatre, London (5-30 January).