Review: The Witch of Edmonton at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

PUBLISHED: 11:33 10 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:40 04 December 2014

The Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen Maybanks

The Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen Maybanks

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The RSC's spell-binding production throws light on the dark-ages of 16th century witch-trials; but is it any coincidence that the psychology of The Witch of Edmonton feels strangely modern? asks Katie Jarvis

The Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen MaybanksThe Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen Maybanks

Now here’s a tip. When you go to a Royal Shakespeare Company performance, serendipitously sit next to a lovely professor of English from Oxford, who can explain all the background to you. That’s what I did for The Witch of Edmonton – don’t know why I’d never thought of it before.

Not only that, but she’s an expert in witchcraft. Why? “Because witchcraft has never been properly reported,” she explains. It’s either portrayed as men controlling women; or innocent women being persecuted. The truth? “Women against women,” she tells me. Women punishing their own sex for being slatterns or gossips or neglecting their children.

Umm… Hold that thought.

And so on to the RSC’s really rather brilliant production of Rowley, Dekker and Ford’s Jacobean tragicomedy, which opens on an almost-empty stage of rough floor and bleak-stick woodland in the Swan Theatre. (I’m assuming you’ve been to the Swan a trillion times, in full knowledge of what an utterly, wonderfully, intimate venue this is; a venue that makes the audience part of the action, oft-times caught between warring factions, even.)

The Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen MaybanksThe Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen Maybanks

And onto the stage comes Frank Thorney (Ian Bonar), our anti-hero, and his girl (or at least one of them) Winnifride (Shvorne Marks, in her RSC debut season). And instantly we’re onto interesting territory. It’s on the horns of Frank’s dilemma that much of the action turns. He (or so he thinks) has got a local maid pregnant and has been cajoled into marrying her; but his father, ignorant of this prior commitment, is determined he marry Sue, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Thus, we begin with a bigamous situation.

Add into that mix Old Mother Sawyer (stunningly performed by Eileen Atkins), bullied and harassed by her fellow villagers and accused of being a witch. Poor, elderly, bent – beaten, even, when she collects a few bare bits of wood from the forest floor for her fire. She’s no witch – not as the lights dim for the first scenes, anyway; but, as she points out with sagacity born of bitterness, “Tis all one to be a witch as to be counted one”. And that statement – so modern in its psychology – acknowledges much; among which is the idea that being considered a witch brings with it (temporarily, at least) a strange kind of power.

So there we have it. One evil created by the perpetrator himself; one created by the thoughts of others.

But let’s pause for a moment, here, to examine the idea of witchcraft in the 16th century, when Rowley & Co (it’s uncertain as to how many playwrights actually collaborated on this drama) wrote their subtly intuitive play. Here was a world obsessed, terrified and fascinated by witchcraft. As the programme (definitely worth buying) points out, “witchcraft was made a crime punishable by death in 1563, a development which would lead to a significant increase in the number of trials and executions of women.” For more than 90 percent of those executed as witches were, of course, women.

The Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen MaybanksThe Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen Maybanks

The Witch of Edmonton was based on one such real-life trial and execution – that of Elizabeth Sawyer in 1621. (A sort of Truman Capote faction, if you will.) The trial heard how the demon that seduced her into devil-worship took the form of a dog named Tom. And, indeed, it’s the same Tom (Jay Simpson), who taunts and tempts the characters on the Swan stage, his near-naked body moving with animal sinuousness.

This is a Greg Doran production, so you already know you’re going to be in for a treat. And the questions he asks are interesting ones. Should we like Frank? Presumably, yes; we need some sympathy with a pivotal character, who has got himself into such a twisted tangle. But the glibness with which Ian Bonar plays this jack-the-lad is a thought-provoking twist in the tail – leaving the audience on the horns of its own dilemma: Is his final repentance genuine or an attempt to manipulate the stage – even his God – one last time?

And then there are the shocks that The Witch delivers – certainly in original written form. The murder – no spoilers here – so appalling in text (perhaps a momentary madness from a devil’s touch), is here a slow-burn anger, with ever hotter coals heaped on by constant whining and clinging.

Indeed, are there any likeable characters? Maybe in Doran’s direction of Young Cuddy Banks (beautifully hammed up by Dafydd Llyr Thomas), who brings a larger-than-life foolishness to the part, which does nothing to diminish his role as an innocent.

The Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen MaybanksThe Witch of Edmonton / Photo: Helen Maybanks

And maybe Old Mother Sawyer herself. Truly Atkins casts a spell in this role – muttering, hating, pragmatic, angry, accepting, bitter, powerful.

Well, yes: perhaps she falls rather readily into the witchcraft of which she is accused. But these playwrights understood cause-and-effect. And when your original sin is to be created ‘poor, deformed, and ignorant’ – and female, of course - there really aren’t many ways out. (Except, presumably, by witchcraft.)

If this play has any fault, perhaps it lies inexorably in a writing of two halves: the drama, psychology and fast-pace of the first is mitigated by the more sober putting-to-rights of the second. But, then, every witch had to have her trials.

All in all, this is a fascinating production, not only in its execution but in its window onto a psychology so alien in its immutability. A cruel psychology, safely drowned alongside the witches…

Except, the question has to be asked: Where are the witches today?

“Look at internet trolls,” my visiting professor suggests. Trolls who target ‘slatterns’, ‘gossips’, women accused of neglecting a child.

Ah, yes. The Witch of Edmonton, now playing on the internet near you.

• Tickets available from the box office on 0844 800 1110, Monday-Saturday, 10am-6pm. The Swan Theatre is in Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 7LS; www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/the-witch-of-edmonton

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