8 January 2016

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at the Arcola Theatre

The Arcola Theatre remains one of my favourites though there is a lot of competition out there and so it was five months between visits this time. The pull this time was the story aided by a free evening and, amazingly, a single free seat in my preferred location, seat A12 is on the corner of the central front row for which I was only charged £12. Sometime seat pricing is a mystery to me and this seemed like a ridiculous bargain, I guess is may have been a preview price but that was not my reason for choosing that theatre on that date.

The Arcola suits me in many ways. It's a good and pleasant walk from my office in Kings Cross and the cafe there is an excellent place to spend an hour or so before a performance. I was pleased to see that they still did that surprisingly good combination of falafel, stew, salad and other things all in one bowl. I loved it; again. I really must remember that they have moved the cafe next to the box office though and stop asking for coffee at the bar. The wifi helps to fill the time too, there is always something interesting happening on Twitter.

The play opened with the immediate aftermath of the hanging of a witch, that's the gibbet on the stage at the start of the play. With one witch discovered and punished the hunt is on to find more. Suspicion moves on to other women in the village especially Jane Wenham who lived outside the village and treated the locals with herbal remedies.

The witch's daughter is another suspect and one of her own making. She starts to convince herself that she must be a witch because her mother was.

The other main players were the local priest who led the witch-hunt with honest conviction and zeal, and the local magistrate who tried to take a more enlightened view. Add to the mix a few more locals and there was a basis of a good story.

And it was a good story with lots going on around the main plot of the accusations and then the trial of Jane. The gruesome bits included pricking Jane with big needles to see if she bled, one of the if you die you are innocent tricks, and the fun bits included the very ribald conversations between some of the village women.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern could have been a one-trick pony but it was far more than that. There were sub-plots a plenty, different insights from the different players and a surprise ending. I tweeted at half-time that the Christians were wining 1-0 and looked like romping it 3-0 or more but it did not turn out that way.

The richness of the play came from the strong characters and powerful events. A man in the pub has an affair, a young girl drowns, women meet in secret, plans are made to replace the magistrate and the landlady of the pub has an unexpected sexual encounter. There was lots to take in and to think about.

Helping the play along was a small cast some of whom doubled up roles so that the few looked like the few more. It was an ensemble performance and each and every one of them played their full part. While Jane was the subject of the story I thought that the priest, Crane played by Tim Delap, was the one driving the narrative with strength and clarity. He was on the wrong side from our current perception of values but he was sincere and honest in his desire to clear the village of witchery.

I did have one little niggle with the play. It used period language, like doxie for prostitute, but then let slip in some modern idioms like, "sorry for your loss" and "not fit for purpose". Little things maybe but they grated slightly in their passing because everything else was so genuine.

But I do not want to end on a low note, how ever trivial it is. Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern was a marvellous play delivered marvellously.

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