Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton

Having run through the 100 odd jam jars I bought in September it seems it's time to knock the preserving on the head for a while. Fortunately there was a theatre trip planned - not just as a distraction from cooking things - to see 'The Witch of Edmonton' at Stratford. We decided to get tickets quite late on for this so there weren't many available seats, so few that we ended up with £5 standing spots which are, despite limited visibility at times, a bargain.

I didn't know anything about this play beforehand (shame on me for not looking it up in time) and the RSC programmes have stopped giving a full synopsis so I had no idea what to expect which made it all exceptionally exciting. 'The Witch of Edmonton' had at least 3 authors - Rowley, Dekket, and Ford, there is also an etc which suggests there may gave been a few more glands in the plot/s. It's apparently generally agreed that each of the 3 named writers were responsible for 1 of the 3 specific plotlines with Dekker responsible for the Mother Sawyer/ dog scenes, Rowley doing the comedy section, and Ford taking another plot involving a bigamous marriage and murder.

I've been going to Stratford to see plays since school days - so for the best part of 25 years and have seen some brilliant stuff there, most of it in The Swan which is a theatre I've come to love for its general atmosphere - the more I go the more I'm impressed by what the set designers do. In this case it felt particularly inspired. The stage was covered with what looked like bark chippings which could as well be autumn earth as a rush strewn floor, and the rear of the stage had sticks which looked mostly like a reed bed but also like a thicket of trees that had lost their leaves - either was wintery.

The action opens with Frank Thorney exhorting his fellow servant and wife Winnifride to keep their marriage a secret until he can persuade his father to secure his inheritance. Winnifride, who's pregnant reluctantly promises after Franks assurances of fidelity. It also turns out that she's been messing around with their employer Sir Arthur Clarington - but refuses to do so any more. Frank travels home to be told by his father that the only way they can stay afloat is for Frank to marry Susan, the daughter of a wealthy neighbour, who is in love with him. So he does.

Meanwhile old mother Sawyer is being accused by her neighbours of being a witch - beaten and reviled by her chief tormentor Banks she begins to curse in earnest which is when the devil appears to her in the form of a large black dog. In return for the promise of her soul - sealed with blood - he will work revenge in the villagers for her. Eileen Atkins plays mother Sawyer and Jay Simpson the dog. Both are superb. As the dog/devil Simpson is painted in the same sort of colour as the stage and wears little but a codpiece and tail. The look is reminiscent of contemporary images of the devil from church frescos and manuscripts, the effect is both threatening and comical as the plot, and Simpson, dictate.

And then as a bit of light relief there are some Morris dancers led by Cuddy Banks, who will also have a brush with the dog/devil.

Frank, having married Susan is struck with remorse, as well he might be, and then when trying to elope with Winnifride finds himself prompted by the devil to kill Susan and frame a previous suitor for her hand. The play ends with Frank, basically repentant and forgiven, and an entirely unrepentant but arguably far less guilty mother Sawyer both sent for execution. Cuddy Banks renounces the devil and all his works.

Along with The Roaring Girl itself (or herself) this play stands out for having really interesting women at it's core - even if they aren't quite the main characters the titles suggest. Neither are particularly great plays in other respects but I'm not sure how much that matters. The Witch of Edmonton - along with The a Roaring Girl, and Arden of Faversham - is based on actual events, so shows something of contemporary opinions that doesn't always filter through the history books. It would be a better play without the Morris dancers but it would also lose one of its best scenes - an energetic but dark episode where the devil takes the fiddle and forces the cast into a frantic dance. It might not be a brilliant play, but it's brilliant theatre.

What's interesting is how much sympathy there is for mother Sawyer. To be though a witch is basically to be a witch, alternately shunned or attacked it's no wonder she wants some revenge on her neighbours, and so she's easily manipulated by the devil, but in his guise of the dog, Tom, their relationship is as much about companionship for a lonely old woman as it is destruction. When he betrays her to her fate at the end it's his physical abandonment of her she first laments. It seems it's a far more unforgivable crime to be an old woman than a murdering bigamist.

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