Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Witch

Thomas Middleton
Little Goblin Productions
The Lord Stanley

Thomas Middleton, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare and Jonson, was a popular Jacobean playwright. The Witch was presented by the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s company) at their indoor Blackfriars theatre.

I can’t remember a modern performance and had certainly never seen it, though many theatregoers will be familiar with some parts of it for certain scenes were lifted from The Witch and inserted into Shakespeare’s Macbeth along with the songs that were part of them.

This rare revival is a welcome chance to experience it (though in trimming it down to less than two hours playing time, those Macbeth scenes of witches’ rites have disappeared).

It is a complex tale of revenge, betrayal, assumed identity and spells whose storyline is not the easiest to follow. It was not until the last act explanations that I got a proper grasp of it. Jacobean audiences must have been much faster on the uptake than I am.

Director Chris Diacopoulos has given his production a modern setting that suggests a rather outdated drawing room and costumed it in a mixture of modern and early twentieth century dress with hints of something earlier. While the clothes match character, the setting is a little too domestic to fit the tragi-comic excesses of the plot. That mix is not the easiest to pull off and the different styles of playing across the cast don’t solve the problem, though most of these actors handle the text well and speak it clearly.

In a macabre opening scene that celebrates the wedding of Antonio and Isabella (who believes her former betrothed Sebastian is dead though, in fact, he has just returned alive), a Duke insists that everyone drinks a toast from a goblet made from the skull of an enemy—the father of the woman whom he has forced to be his wife. The Duchess wants revenge and Sebastian, determined to prevent the consummation of the marriage so that he can claim Isabella himself, seeks magic means to accomplish this.

The action then moves to the witch Hecate and her son Fierston (the other witches and the appearance of a violin-playing cat have been cut). Hecate, incestuously lascivious with her son, can’t understand why he wants to go off to lie with other women. It is to her that Sebastian comes in search of magic.

Fierston is the clown of the piece, and presumably the incest is intended to be bawdily funny but the audience I saw it with seemed unsure how to take it, partly perhaps because Penelope Day makes Hecate a believable flesh and blood wise woman rather than a grotesque 120-year-old hag.

The mayhem continues with more spells, murders that aren’t and eventual sorted out pairing and order restored. More fustian might make this black piece more funny but these hard-working actors, despite some determined playing to the audience, don’t find a way to combine comedy with complex drama.

There is an intriguing north-country-accented Duke from Clive Alexander, a restrained and worthy Governor from Edward Haines and a rather excessive Duchess from Emma Richardson—though her florid playing and audience ogling probably suit the character of the piece. Her handmaid Amoretta becomes a heavily-accented foreign servant as Mengu Turk presents her.

Fierston is described in the programme as the Clown but, odd though Joseph Emms’s performance makes him, that aspect of the role seems missing. David O’Connor handles the rather colourless role of Antonio and Stefan Stuart gives a bit more personality to Almachildes, another customer of Hecate who wants to procure a way of seducing Amoretta. Then there is Antonio’s sister Francisca, pregnant by the Duke and gently presented by Charlotte Mack and Florida (Tuula Costelloe), a whore who is Antonio’s bit on the side and had hoped to marry him.

The complexities of the interaction of all concerned are eventually resolved but the cast managed to suggest that they understood much more about how they got there than I comprehended.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton