Choreography by Cathy Marston
Bern Ballett
Linbury Studio Royal Opera House

Clemmie Sveaas in Bern Ballett's Witch-hunt Credit: Philipp Zinniker
Bern Ballett's Witch-hunt Credit: Philipp Zinneker
Bern Ballett's Witch-hunt Credit: Philipp Zinneker
Paula Alonso in Bern Ballett's Witch-hunt Credit: Philipp Zinneker

Can’t undo what has been done, the dead are done, says the adult Annamiggeli Tschudi, sitting in a bleak asylum, incriminating glass of milk in hand, straitjacket sleeves dangling, they cannot be refashioned.

But this is exactly what choreographer Cathy Marston does in Hexenhatz, Witch-hunt—she brings back the dead, refashions the story of Anna Göldi, the last witch of Europe to be executed (by sword) in Switzerland in 1782, into a black and white expressionistic dance drama.

The ever-present nail and needle-impregnated milk the child Annamiggeli supposedly drinks, the vomiting of its contents, the deliberate delusions are replayed and inspected from every angle. How reliable can the word of a troubled child prone to fits and convulsions be? She is ‘just a girl of eight’ we are told.

But a child sees what is going on. Maid Anna is a disrupting presence in the family household. Kind and ‘like a mother’ to Annamiggeli, able to calm her fits, this is her undoing. She must be a witch if she can do that.

Who is responsible, who is guilty, can an eight-year-old hold the key? Is Anna Göldi, an outsider in the Tschudi household, ‘never one of us’, a convenient scapegoat?

On the canvas of Edward Kemp’s spare but telling text, and formal baroque music by Vivaldi, Albinoni, Albicastro, Valentini, and Tartini at once soothing and urgent, Marston creates a questioning psychodrama, with subtext played out by its dramatis personae.

The tone is Michael Hanneke’s The White Ribbon, Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and The Hunt, the Salem witch trials. We see the wrong done, but the adult child (a terrific Mona Kloos) is adamant. It had to be done. No contrition. All of them are victims.

Jann Messerli’s efficient impressionistic minimalist set of movable metal frames imprisons the minds and bodies of a group of fifteen (nurses and citizens) clad in clinical white, balancing glasses of milk on their hands. Circling the facts again and again in seventy-five minutes of exposition, going over the same ground, searching for the ‘truth’.

Expressive, emotive, dance speaks where words fail. Adult Annamiggeli may be saying one thing, but her needy child’s body (Paula Alonso) betrays her. Dr Johann Tschudi (Franklyn Lee) lusts after Anna (Clemmie Sveaas). Does his wife Elsbeth (Martina Langmann), listening in doorways, poison her own child?

A father’s impropriety, a mother’s anguish, a child’s intervention… Spitting needles, spitting poison. Have to see her off, the witch. A family drama taken to hysterical lengths, possessive and possessed, infects the group corpus. Anna Göldi runs the gauntlet of respectable society’s fear and ignorance.

Royal Ballet trained Cathy Marston, in her last work for Bern Ballett, whose artistic director she has been these last six years, gives us a physical story of angst, hysterical paralysis, soured love, and a fatal embrace.

Clemmie Sveaas, a performer of quiet persuasion, is the barefooted, sacrificial lamb amongst the shod self-righteous, her erotic duets with Franklyn Lee a highpoint of many. With the child the duets are grounded and safe. Fair-haired Martina Langmann conveys spite and distaste, and the ensemble move in bewitching shape-shifting form.

Finally, after the tortuous rounds the solitary door is broken down, and Göldi walks free. Is the adult Annamiggeli Tschudi, like Pontius Pilate, ever to be forgiven? She is sticking to her guns. She wants no truck with our mercy.

In 2008, the Swiss Government officially exonerated Anna Göldi, accepting proof that she had been unjustly tried, tortured and killed. Today there are three books, a film, a museum, and a human rights prize in her name. 

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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