It is becoming increasingly rare in modern theatre ecology to come face to face with a modern well-made play. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is, on the face of it, a bit of a fossil, in that it takes place over two hour long acts; fermenting, refusing to shoot its load too early; the first half simmering slowly under excess exposition before gradually it gets its nails into you during a second half leading to a scene that ends up being the most gripping I have seen this year. Brutally torturous it brought audible gasps from an audience and images designed to imprint itself on the mind for a long time to come.
Jane Wenham was one of the last accused of the witch craft trials in England in 1712. There had been a number of years amnesty but after one women is hung, hysteria returns to the village of Wenham and a young crusading cleric campaigns to put the eccentric folk healer Jane Wenham to trial. The smell of sex permeates the play in the same way as it does in those other well known witch trial pieces, Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It is everywhere: from the young girl who is discovering her own sexuality while also engaging in what amounts to a gang-bang in a barn; to the once upon at time lothario mourning his failing Don Juan status; and the barmaid who is engaging in an affair with a grieving husband, while also provoking feelings of lust in the visiting clergyman. These plays point towards the fear of female sexuality being at the heart of the accusations. The patriarchal world is being challenged for the first time and men resort to the one device that they have in their locker to subvert it – violence.
Scheduling brings it to Bristol at a rather unfortunate time with Miller’s taut witch trial masterpiece still playing across the river at Bristol Old Vic with both having flame haired young temptresses close to its heart though Hannah Hutch is less an Abigail Williams, more a lost, confused young girl, who has seen her mother hung and portrays in equal measure childlike innocence and earthy sexuality. If the first half struggles to build momentum due to its lengthy exposition, the second half moves up a gear as the groundwork Lenkiewitz puts in pays wonders as the action finally begins. The acting work is solid, with the feel of the early eighteenth century land, Amanda Bellamy as the titular wronged Wenham,Tim Delap as the unmoving sadistic cleric, Rachel Sanders as the hub of the community barmaid, Judith Cooke as the blind lady who claims she is given sight by the devil and David Acton who doubles up as a crusading man prepared to campaign to protect Wenham and the gossipy village drunk. Most impressively of all is Cat Simmon’s whose soulful voice engulfs the intimate Tobacco Factory space and provides the last moving image of the evening.
The action is played out on James Button’s simplistic set with death constantly looming in the symbol of the noose. Though Ria Parry’s production never comes close to feeling like a match for Miller’s master-work (but then what does) it does provide a rather interesting counterpoint. Where Miller’s work ends on a note of exhilaration as a man goes to death with his name intact and a love restored, here it ends on a gentle melancholy, a life has been saved but much of the community have seen their hearts break. Death is only one way in breaking society.