Writers: William Rowley,Thomas Dekker &John Ford
Director: Gregory Doran
Reviewer: James Garrington
When it first appeared in 1621, The Witch of Edmonton was a very topical piece indeed. Only a few months earlier, Elizabeth Sawyer had faced a trial for her life for supposed witchcraft in the village of Edmonton, and the play tells the story of the events that led up to that. It uses the ideas which were published in a pamphlet by Henry Goodcole entitled The wonderful discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, Witch; in contrast to Goodcole’s pamphlet, though, the Sawyer in the play is a lonely and ostracised woman, harassed by her neighbours and accused of being a witch. In her despair, she begins to wish that she really did have some sort of magical powers so she could have revenge on those who were causing her misery.
The Witch of Edmonton is very much a product of its time. The first half of the 17th century was a period when witchcraft hype was at its height, and the unfortunate Elizabeth Sawyer was but one example in a long line of similar cases where a woman, or in some cases groups of women, were accused of witchcraft with very little or no evidence to substantiate the allegations. Witchcraft at that time was viewed by the public with the same mixture of horror and fascination that was in more recent times directed towards serial killers and the like, and it is easy to believe that plays dealing with this subject would be extremely popular at that time. Times have changed, and with them social attitudes, and we no longer have the same fascination or interest in witchcraft or the doctrines of good and evil; as a result, the play does not necessarily resonate with a modern audience in the same way as it did with a Jacobean one.
The performances are as good as we have come to expect from the RSC. Having made her debut there in 1957, Eileen Atkins returns to the RSC as the eponymous witch and gives a forceful performance in a rôle that seems smaller than the title might indicate, for this is only partly her story. Alongside her is Jay Simpson as Dog, the devil character in the piece. He has a quite sinister yet seductive side to his character, so it is far from clear whether he has appeared because Sawyer has summoned him or whether he is the prime mover behind the relationship initially. His is also a fairly physical performance, upright and charming one moment and on all fours, bounding and barking like a dog the next. Further creditable performances come from Ian Bonar (Frank Thorney) as the bigamist trying to escape, and Faye Castelow (Susan) and Shvorne Marks (Winnifride), his two wives. Bonar is admirable as the repentant criminal whose crimes become more serious as he tries to leave, convincing and vociferous in his ardent denials and Castelow has an earnest and believable quality to her performance as she refuses to believe her husband’s real reason for wanting to escape, even when he is trying to tell her the truth. Also worth a mention is Elspeth Brodie as Susan’s sister Katherine, who performs with a convincing sincerity as she tries to come to terms with events.
The Witch of Edmonton is a late addition to the RSC’s Roaring Girls season and, in contrast to the other productions, it is played in period. Given the subject matter, this is a sensible decision – but the result is that the setting and performances do so little to increase the accessibility of the piece to a modern audience. It has been billed as a tragic-comedy, and while it has some amusing moments throughout, it is hard to really empathise with any of the characters in the way you often do with a typical tragedy. The result is a production full of highly competent performances, yet which remains somewhat unfulfilling and forgettable.
Photo: Stuart Hemley | Runs until 29th November 2014