Originally published on Theatre Bristol Writers – watched on 3rd of November 2015
by Watford Palace Theatre & Arcola Theatre
Decades after the last witch trial took place, a woman is hung in Walkern for such a crime, and the town finds itself on the verge of mass hysteria. The charge is lead by the single-minded Reverend Crane, and suspicions soon fall onto local cunning woman and self-proclaimed loner, Jane Wenham. She hangs out with a cockerel called James, so obviously a witch.
Ria Parry’s powerful production of “Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern,” explores the contagious fear of the inhabitants of Walkern in 1712 and their own particular shameful secrets, that builds towards the inevitable downfall of Jane Wenham. The audience is presented with a series of vignettes which occasionally verge on the melodramatic side but which showcase a people weighed down with guilt, repressed sexual desire and ruled by a bubbling undercurrent of patriarchal fear.
Ann, the daughter of the hanged “witch” and played with convincing fragility by Hannah Hutch, is our protagonist, and we watch her struggle with the guilt of “unnatural thoughts,” exchanging sexual anecdotes with the women of the village, all of whom attribute her feelings to being in league with the devil. They leer around a fire exchanging vulgar tales, as the set transforms from local tavern to woodland confessional through a series of trap/hidden doors. Parry builds up tension with these simple transformations, the most effective of which is a hangman’s cross that leers ominously over the stage throughout, mutating from instrument of death to lamp holder, illumined cross and then back again; a constant reminder of how easily things can change, especially for the women of Walkern, whose fortunes could turn with one ill word against them.
Reverend Chard proved to be the most layered character, with a tenacious yet subtle stand out performance from Tim Delap, who plays the unlikeable and conflicted holy man fearlessly. He, like most of the men in the play, is ruled by his basic urges. The threat of a possibly one-sided representation of men’s innate nature is saved by the town’s Bishop (David Acton), who is the only man who aids Jane but who also seems to learn something about unselfish personal sacrifice.
The show is entertainingly tense throughout, the only real bum note being a third act some may find a tad damp as it chooses historical facts over a dramatically satisfying conclusion, however this understandably could not be avoided. Overall, it was an enjoyable operatic exploration of how religious guilt can be used as an excuse to martyr those who do not deserve it, a way to cleanse the pallet of an entire town’s perceived sins.