REVIEW: The Witch Of Edmonton, Swan Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 18th November 2014

The Witch Of Edmonton
Eileen Atkins in The Witch of Edmonton. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The Witch of Edmonton
Swan Theatre
15 November 2014
4 stars

Much is always made about the joint authorship of the 1621 play, The Witch Of Edmonton, which is attributed to the pens of “William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford &c”, the “c” now thought to include Thomas Middleton. It is said that the play is really in three sections and the joint authorship makes this clear. While minds may differ on that, Gregory Doran’s assured, vital and splendidly clear revival of the play, now playing in the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company headquarters in Stratford Upon Avon, overcomes what difficulties may be thought to spring from collaboration and provides an unsparing picture of a society where preoccupations with possessions, property and pay lead, inevitably, to corruption, unfounded suspicion and desolation.

As Mother Sawyer says:

“A witch? Who is not?
Hold not that universal name in scorn then.
What are your painted things in princes’ courts?
Upon whose eyelids lust sits blowing fires
To burn men’s souls in sensual hot desires.
Upon whose naked paps a lecher’s thought
Acts sin in fouler shapes than can be wrought”

Just as The Witch Of Edmonton was timely when penned, it is timely now. It might really be called The Devils In Edmonton because it is not about the fate of one woman, but the fate of an entire society; about casual corruption and subversion of the law, rather than witchcraft; about the consequences of bullying and abuse of all kinds.

Lust, for flesh or property or possessions, lies at the heart of the play. Sir Arthur Carrington lusts after his maid, Winnifride, and gets her pregnant. Frank Thorney wants his father’s estates and lusts after Winnifride too; he marries her secretly and makes a deal with Carrington intended to secure his future. Frank’s father wants his debts paid and thus wants to coerce Frank into marrying Susan, the daughter of a rich landowner. Despite being married, Frank does marry Susan because doing so solves his money problems.

Cuddy Banks, the definition of local yokel, lusts after Susan’s sister, Katherine, and is willing to do just about anything to have his way with her. He is a dim lad and seeks assistance in his task from Mother Sawyer, an old, crippled, lonely woman who Cuddy’s father, amongst many others, thinks is a witch because of her appearance and because occasionally a crop will fail or a farm animal miscarry. Cuddy seeks her assistance in the matter of Katherine.

Mother Sawyer, frustrated and desperate after years of isolation, beatings and cruelty from the likes of Cuddy’s father, has given up trying to protest her innocence. In anguish, she calls for assistance from “some power good or bad” and, unfortunately for her (and several others), it is the Devil who answers her call. She makes a pact with him and sets about seeking revenge on her tormentors.

With the Devil loose in the town, mayhem ensues. A Morris Dance turns into a demonic spectacle; Frank murders Susan and blames her and Katherine’s other suitors for the deed; Cuddy sees visions; and the villagers turn on Mother Sawyer, intent on hanging her. But a local Justice intervenes and Mother Sawyer is temporarily saved while awaiting trial. Elsewhere Katherine’s sister discovers that Frank was her murderer and he eventually confesses. Carrington’s guilt is finally uncovered.

Having been vilified and tormented for many years, Mother Sawyer becomes that which she is said to be: a Witch. She owns up to her evil deeds (no more than evil thoughts really) and goes to her death. The village has not forgiven her. The opportunistic bigamist and murderer, Frank, however, seems forgiven by everyone, as if somehow his actions were excusable. The play ends as it begins: Winnifride, alone and pregnant, uncertain of her future or the house in which she lives. Happy times for the Devil.

This is a beautiful, sometimes shocking, sometimes haunting, production of an intricate and detailed dissection of human frailty and weakness. Doran lavishes great care and attention on the task of illuminating the text, telling the story in an engrossing way. Niki Turner’s spare, but stunningly effective design, aids immeasurably.

At the back of the stage there are rows of withering, tall reeds. The sense of country farming is immediately established. But there is a dryness to the reeds which suggests that, at any moment, a fire might burst forth and engulf all. Hell, then, is ever near. Equally, when lit just so by the masterful Tim Mitchell, the reeds become a place of ghostly visions or the dark hunting grounds of the four legged incarnation of the Devil.

The Devil. Doran’s inspirational and game-changing decision in this production of The Witch Of Edmonton is in the way the Devil is given life. The text refers to the character as Dog and Jay Simpson, an astute, committed and fearless actor, provides an unforgettable turn as a seductive hell hound, complete with horns, huge doglike ears, redlined mouth and eyes, a collar, a spiked ridge down his spine, a capacious codpiece/G-string and either midnight black overall body paint or skin-tight mottled Lycra. He is mesmerising to watch.

Everything Simpson does is both perfect and not quite right – the sense of the demonic is always present, in his eyes, his extraordinary and thoroughly consistent, bestial, creature-of-the-dead ungainly stride, and in the transfixing lilt of his voice. He is supremely revolting (the moment he spits and sprays blood over the face of the murderer Frank is astonishing) and utterly charming – when Mother Sawyer tickles his tummy and he all but squeals in delight, it is both terrifying to watch and strangely joyful.

All but naked, Simpson puts the Devil in devilment and contextualises the behaviour and antics of the rest of the cast. It is a phenomenal performance.

Although the title role, Mother Sawyer is far from being the most important character in The Witch Of Edmonton, but with Dame Eileen Atkins in the cast you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. An actress of great intelligence, subtlety and range, Atkins is astonishingly good here, most especially because she makes the character so casual, so caught in pain and fear, so weak. No spitting venomous grandstanding harridan here. Rather, a complex, hurt and bitter creature, shunned by society and tired of it, tired of the unfairness that comes with categorisation of the poor and weak.

Atkins’ voice is a marvel to hear. She can encapsulate spite in a single vowel, conjure up fear with a single consonant, establish mood and tone with a glance, a silence. Her assuredness means that she can throw away her lines, knowing they will be heard, understood and contrasted against the bluster of her antagonists. And her scenes with Simpson are sheer theatrical bliss, running the full gamut from hesitance through capricious excess to resigned desertion. The moment when Atkins let Simpson’s Devil-Dog wound her proffered arm and lap up her blood to seal their pact was both monstrous and theatrically unforgettable.

There are many jewels in this cast. Faye Castelow is absolute perfection as the sweet, loving Susan and her murder is genuinely horrific. She plays her death scene magnificently, luminous in her depiction of love and acceptance of her fate. Ian Bonar is an excellent Frank, all lust, bluster and blagging. His diction and sense of the language is excellent and he treads the tortured treacherous path that Frank opts for with great care and thought. He is at his very best in the scenes with Castelow.

Elspeth Brodie’s watchful Katherine, Joe Bannister’s gentlemanly Somerton, Geoffrey Freshwater’s foolish then broken Thorney, David Rintoul’s foul Carrington and Ian Redford’s gentle, honest Carter are all very good. They work seamlessly together, creating an effective landscape of characters for the tumult of the play.

Dafydd Llyr Thomas is up and down as Cuddy Banks. He needs more cohesion of character to be a true success, but there is, nevertheless, a deal to like about his knockabout slapstick turn. Joseph Arkley is the only true disappointment in the cast; his Warbeck is petulant and seeks the spotlight. He needs to take a leaf out of Bannister’s book; play the character, not seek attention.

Colour-blind casting worked against Shvorne Marks’ Winnifride. At the start of the play it was difficult to work out why Frank was seeking to isolate her. Was it because of her skin colour or something else? By the time this question was resolved, Marks’ opportunity to cement the audience’s sympathy was gone.

The rest of the cast go about their tasks with energy and glee; especially good are Timothy Speyer (both as gormless Fiddler and righteous Justice) and Oliver Dench (Dame Judi’s great-nephew).

This is a brutal, confronting play, rich in character and ripe in detail and incident. The wickedness is open, alarming and visceral. Doran pulls out all the stops to ensure that The Witch Of Edmonton, no matter who wrote it, can be seen as an important Jacobean tragedy which still has ringing significance and relevance today. He succeeds admirably.

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