Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern
Out Of Joint
Any writer who takes witches as the subject of a play will inevitably anticipate comparisons with The Crucible.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz has created a piece that looks at the subject from a British perspective and chillingly the action, which is based on real events, takes place in a Hertfordshire village near what is now Stevenage, not too far up the road from the Arcola Theatre.
This should bring home to every spectator the good fortune that we have to be living in far more enlightened times than her subjects faced 300 years ago.
In some ways, it covers similar ground to Arthur Miller's classic though this Out Of Joint production directed by Ria Parry takes a more feminist viewpoint. Indeed, every man on show is deeply flawed, though so are a good number of the village women.
Following the execution of one witch, the local antennae start twitching at the prospect of more representatives of this mythical but evil species doing the work of the Satanic nearby.
A fascinating debate between a veteran bishop and an idealistic young chaplain opens proceedings and informs viewers of much that will follow.
On the one side, the rationalist Bishop played by David Acton laughs at the existence of witches. However, Tim Delap as his junior colleague passionately delivers passages from the Bible as definitive evidence that the Devil's disciples not only exist but are blighting Walkern.
However, it takes more than one priest to create a witch. Rather than the Devil incarnate, as Miller demonstrated, it is ordinary people who create the feverish conditions through accusations driven by greed, jealousy or pure malice. As one might expect, those found guilty are usually the simple or innocent without the wit to defend themselves.
Jane Wenham, played with courage and conviction by Amanda Bellamy, was the kind of mild eccentric who today might run a shop selling herbal remedies. However, in the 18th century, her unbending beliefs and unwillingness to kowtow to neighbours or clergyman brought down the wrath of the church in scenes that can be simultaneously comical and terrifying, particularly her interrogation and trial.
Rather than using the good old swimming technique, where proof of evil was demonstrated by survival while those drowning were innocent, an even crueller methodology is depicted on this occasion.
The holy chaplain chooses to decide whether Jane was a witch through “pricking”. This is a very benign way of describing a man plunging a knife into various parts of her body to see whether she bleeds.
This earnest play focuses not only on Jane Wenham herself but many of her neighbours, giving a good feel for Hertfordshire life in those benighted times. There is sexism, racism and droit de seigneur to add to the prejudice against those who are slightly out of the ordinary.
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern may not have the power or depth of The Crucible but it is a valuable reminder of man's inhumanity to man (or more accurately woman) and will inevitably make visitors ponder modern-day equivalents, though thankfully these are generally not as extreme.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher