THE WITCH OF EDMONTON
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 13th November, 2014
It’s a sad fact of society that when you hold up someone as a scapegoat for your problems, evil deeds will follow – persecution being the least of them. Playwrights Rowley, Dekker and Ford were saying as much four centuries ago. How dismaying to see the message is still relevant today.
Old Mother Sawyer is a lonely old woman whose life is made intolerable by the villagers of Edmonton ( a bunch of UKIP voters in waiting – although these days the focus has turned from little old ladies to immigrants). Bothered and bewildered, she wishes she could bewitch her tormentors. Unlike The Crucible there’s a twist here. Something wicked this way comes: the devil hears the old woman’s curses and makes her an offer she can’t refuse. She becomes a witch for real with the devil at her side as her familiar, Tom the black dog. Eileen Atkins in perfectly credible as the curmudgeonly old boot, arousing our sympathy from the start. Her cantankerous demeanour puts the devil in his place (temporarily, of course). Atkins is superb and so is Jay Simpson as the devil dog.
Cleverly, the script keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters. We always know more than they do and this dramatic irony heightens both the comic and the tense moments.
There is greater evil abroad than making Farmer Banks (Christopher Middleton) kiss his cow’s backside. Ian Bonar’s con artist Frank Thorney Junior is a bigamist and adulterer, swindling his inheritance from his father, abetted by David Rintoul’s Sir Arthur. (When it all goes belly-up, it turns out there is one law for the rich and another for the poor… Imagine that! Oh. Yes…) Bonar is excellent – his early scenes with the first of his wives takes us in. We believe he is a star-cross’d swain. Later we see the depths to which he will sink.
The entire company is in good form. Shvorne Marks makes a strong impression and tugs at the heartstrings as wronged wife Winnifride. Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Thorney Senior break your heart with grieving. Dafydd Llyr Thomas is a hoot as the bumptious Cuddy Banks – the only character able to cast the devil from the place. Joe Bannister and Joseph Ashley cut dashing figures as two suitors wrongly accused – it all gets a bit CSI:Edmonton for a while, An underused Liz Crowther gets a moment in the spotlight for a wild-eyed mad scene and handsome RSC newcomer Oliver Dench shines, displaying a talent for comic playing in a couple of minor roles.
Sensibly, director Gregory Doran keeps the play in its own period and lets its delights and messages speak for themselves. Niki Turner’s design is as effective as it is simple: a dense backdrop of tall reeds through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates creepily atmospheric moments, complemented by Paul Englishby’s music. Special mention must go to violinist Zhivko Georgiev for his ‘diabolical’ fiddling.
There is much to enjoy here: a bunch of rude mechanicals perform a morris dance and have to dance to the devil’s tune; shocking violence and duplicity; humorous exchanges and poignant scenes of grief and forgiveness… It’s a betwitching evening of theatre with Eileen Atkins casting a spell that lingers long after Old Ma Sawyer is led away to her fate.