The Witch of Edmonton

William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford, adapted by Natasha Dawn
Periwig and Monkey
The Courtyard Theatre

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The Witch of Edmonton is a complex little drama at the best of times. Concerning one elderly Mistress Sawyer, charged, quite rightly as it turns out, with witchcraft, Witch of Edmonton explores with part comedy, part tragedy, the effects of small-town provincial mindsets that are as ready to accuse as to reap the benefits of age-old remedies, potions and incantations in their personal quest for love, lust and gain.

Traditionally, Mother Sawyer, who embarks on her wicked Faustian pact with the devil because there is no-one else to whom she can turn, is played by a mature actor. This makes Mother Sawyer’s sexual liaison with the ‘Dog’ who becomes her ‘witch’s familiar’ that much darker and sordid, tinged with bestiality and gerontophilia in its gross displays of onstage sexual encounter.

In Natasha Dawn’s production, in which she is both director, producer and adapter, Mistress Sawyer is a cockney sparrow, more firebrand than faded hag. Leonie Hill plays a young, highly-sexed ‘witch’ whose physical deformity amounts to a large strawberry birthmark on her face. This might single her out in a community, but it hardly suggests the dangerous outcast of the original play.

Similarly, Rowley, Dekker and Webster’s overtly Jacobean drama, rife with topical references to the ageing King James’s particular dislike of both witchcraft and tobacco, is strangely relocated to a Restoration setting, complete with posturing white-faced fops and fopesses, thigh-length boots and Charles II periwigs, and an unfortunate conflation of fairy-tale imagery all thrown into one.

Gone is the outrageous treatment of a senior member of the community. Gone is the juxtaposition of this narrative of accusation and superstition with the very real horror of Frank Thorney’s murderous attack on his poor wife. In its place is a rather superficial treatment of the witch tale, packaged in a moralizing confection which is cold and heartless.

Some performances do remedy this obvious shortfall. Mark Hawkins gives a superb performance as Frank, torn between his two wives and forced to acknowledge his bigamy and bloody deed. Hawkins plays the servant Frank with all the arrogance of a public schoolboy. This makes the servile Frank’s relationship with his hapless nobleman master, Sir Arthur Clarington (who is in fact the father of Frank’s baby), far from clear. Indeed, Frank appears much more the aristocrat in this significantly imbalanced relationship. Nonetheless, Hawkins drags the play out of the doldrums and into the torrid waters of real drama.

Similarly, Tom Hunter’s haunting portrayal of Dog is as dangerous and malicious as a devil should be. Whether fleering at the audience or sucking blood from his latest victim, Hunter’s Dog remains a theatrical high point. Lucy Grainger as the young second wife, Susan Carter, is both innocent and annoyingly attentive to her volatile husband. All sympathy when she is actually murdered, and her ghostly return is effective and poignant.

These are good performances in what is otherwise a lacklustre adaptation of an already difficult play. There is a real sense that, rather than too many, not enough liberties were taken to justify the few small but fundamental changes that were made. In the end, a play which, at its best, makes serious comment about our treatment of elderly social outcasts becomes nothing more than tedious sensationalized spectacle. Perhaps that’s what the audiences wanted in 1621. In 2009 we surely hope for something more.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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