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Sabbat

Richard Shannon
Dukes Theatre
Orange Tree Theatre

Nisa Cole as Jennet Device and Robert Calvert as Roger Nowell
Nisa Cole as Jennet Device and Christine Mackie as Alice Nutter

Four hundred years ago in 1612, the biggest witch trial in British history took place in Lancaster. Sixteen people were put on trial and four others arrested but released. Of the sixteen twelve came from the Lancashire village of Pendle and it is they whose story Richard Shannon's play tells.

He doesn't attempt to present the complete story of all those accused but imaginatively recreates the mood of the time. He recounts what happened through just four characters: Roger Nowell, the Justice of the Peace for Pendle, his pregnant young second wife Judith, her friend and neighbour Alice Nutter and wild child Jennet whose family appears to dabble in witchcraft. Alice and Jennet were among the accused, Roger their first prosecutor, though the case was taken over by his superiors.

There had long been rumours that Jennet's family were witches, but these events were sparked off when her sister Alizon cursed a pedlar for refusing to give her some pins and he stumbled and was lamed (probably the result of a stroke). That led to the discovery that Jennet's grandma Demdike had held a meeting at her house on Good Friday 1612, a sabbat when witchcraft had been practiced. But how could Alice Nutter be implicated?

Strict Protestant Nowell, already uneasy at the herbal remedies that Alice offered Judith and himself, discovers that she had been there. She was a well-off widow who tried to help the poor and this was a philanthropic visit, but her presence was enough to implicate her.

Shannon presents Nowell as a complex but upright man, caught up in what he believes are his public and religious duties with a dread of popery and witchcraft, his reasoning easily tipped by his beiiefs. Robert Calvert plays him as a loving husband, looking forward to the birth of their child with new hope having lost all his previous children, then increasingly becoming obsessed by what he thinks is his fight against evil.

Hannah Emmanuel, as his wife, fearful of giving birth, shows us her change from her reliance on Alice to distrust and back to trust again as she tries to convince her husband of Alice's innocence. Alice, clearheaded and honest, independent and kind is trapped by circumstance and other's fears. In an impassioned speech in which she refuses to confess to witchcraft and proclaims her innocence, Christine Mackie seems to speak for all injustice, and as nine-year-old Jennet, Nisa Cole captures exactly that mixture of innocence and cunning manipulation of which children are capable and we can see her mind switch from one tack to another as she tries to find a way to please her interrogator and preserve herself.

It is starkly set by Miriam Nabarro on a bare platform surround by woodchips, four butcher's hooks hanging ominously above, and Amy Leach's tense production uses the formality of song and hand bells to establish a formal framework that prepares for the symbolic stylisation of its tragic ending. A production doubly effective in its minimalism.

Sabbat plays at the Orange Tree Theatre as part of a short tour that began at the Dukes and ends there 17-21 July with performances at the Muni in Colne 10-14 July 2012.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton