Twenty Seven Live
The Castle Keep, Newcastle
From 14 October 2016 to 31 October 2016
Review by Peter Lathan
Thirteen women and one male were hanged as witches on a huge scaffold on Newcastle’s Town Moor in 1650, the largest mass execution for witchcraft in English history, although not the largest number of witches to be “unmasked”.
The same witchfinder—whose name we do not know—had "revealed" 30 in Berwick and then, scenting more profit (for he was paid 20 shillings for every witch he found), headed to the newly Puritan Newcastle which had supported the Royalist cause in the Civil War and had been devastated by an outbreak of plague.
Lee Mattinson’s play tells the story of this event by focusing on one family, all of whom were to be executed: Kath and her ten-year-old son Matthew, her sister Elianor and her teenage daughter Alice.
There is particular focus on Matthew (William Wyn Davies, who gives the character a slightly fey quality) who not only has a pet white mouse but talks to his dead father…
In fact, it is these scenes which give the play most of its impact, for the contrast between the innocence of the boy and the interpretation which could be placed on his behaviour by someone who is determined to find witchcraft is stark and his conviction is inevitable from the very start. We so want to tell him to keep quiet as he unwittingly digs himself into the hole from which escape is impossible.
The rest, however, is not so compelling. The three women, along with an unseen mother / grandmother, give us the family history and also keep us abreast of the happenings outside of the family circle—the progress of the hunt for witches and the names of those accused.
The play is performed in-the-round in the Great Hall of the Keep, which adds something of a frisson (and not just of cold, although there is certainly that—it is a castle, after all!), for some of the accused were imprisoned in the Keep before the trial. Its acoustic also adds an ethereal quality to the occasional plaintive singing led by the beautiful voice of Natasha Haws (Kath).
We do meet the Witchfinder (played by Dale Jewitt). We see him at work. We hear him as he tells us what he is doing and why. This is a character drawn in the broadest possible strokes. There is no subtlety—he takes every possible opportunity to tell us that he is paid 20 shillings for each witch and that would seem to be his sole motivation for what he does.
Wytch commemorates a shameful piece of Newcastle’s history but one which is not unique to the city—and a useful reminder of the effect determined and manipulative people can have on a frightened and gullible population. Something, perhaps, worth remembering today...