Writer: Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Director: Ria Parry
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In a Hertfordshire village in the early 18th Century, it turns out the only thing on everyone’s mind was lust. In a profoundly religious and superstitious age before the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution people largely lived and died in the same place, among the same people and unsurprisingly knew a lot about each other’s business – anything unusual was deemed suspicious, especially if the perpetrator was an unmarried woman and accusations of witchcraft soon followed. In Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play, she argues the case against Jane Wenham was the result of morally corrupt villagers attempting to conceal their laxity from a zealous new chaplain.
Despite having her name in the title, Jane Wenham appears very little in this play and for some time at the beginning, she isn’t seen at all. Instead, Lenkiewicz tries to make the audience see her through the eyes of others and in doing so presents a series of vignettes depicting village life, rather than building a clear case for or against. So we see the story of the local kindly Bishop who refuses to believe in witches but has fallen under the spell of his servant and former slave Kemi Martha, also the tale of the pub owner Widow Higgins who’s conducting an illicit affair with the married Fergal McGuire while also being the unrequited object of new parson Samuel Crane’s affections. The audience is also introduced to young servant Ann Thorn, who has allowed herself to be used by multiple men and then flirts with lesbianism as well as devil worship with what appear to be a group of fantasists around a camp fire.
If that all sounds confusing that’s because it is and it’s not until the second act that events start to move when a child dies and fingers immediately point to Jane. While this play goes on to show the brutality and indignity of various inspections and torture Jane undergoes to prove her innocence, the mass of subplots and character portraits it includes sometimes detract from the central story, making it difficult to sympathise with the wronged woman. A lot of the scenes are compelling and leave you wanting to know what happens next but somehow the overall effect is less than the sum of its parts.
One solution would be to focus more tightly on the motivations of Samuel Crane in pursuing Jane’s execution so vehemently. Tim Delap gives the best performance of the night as the softly-spoken repressed but dangerously fanatical holy man who is challenged by his growing lust for the local barmaid – a story that is never resolved – which, if given more time to develop, could be used to explain how he channels these feelings into the case. Similarly the contrast between Crane’s hard-line approach and the more loving version of Christianity offered by Bishop Hutchinson, an excellent David Acton, is worthy of greater stage time.
The other performances are all very good, especially Rachel Sanders in the dual role of landlady Widow Higgins and the tragic mother Bridget Hurst, and Cat Simmons as the dignified Kemi Martha. Amanda Bellmay’s central role as Jane Wenham was perhaps a touch too broad in its portrayal of the ‘mad old woman’, which makes it clear why the locals are suspicious but doesn’t win much concern from the viewer. But nonetheless, Lenkiewicz’s play has plenty to say about the persistence of binding views of women’s morality and ability to control their own bodies. The play’s final moments are a metaphor for women casting off the patriarchy and living freely, which after more than two hours of suspicion and accusation offers a fitting moment of hope as you leave the theatre.
Runs until30 January 2016: Image: Richard Davenport