Stratford Upon Avon
THE WITCH OF EDMONTON: Rowley, Dekker, Ford Etc
RSC: The Swan
Runs: 2h 45m, one interval, till 29 November 2014
Review: Alexander Ray Edser, 15 11 14
An extraordinary surprise, wonderfully performed.
What an extraordinary play this is! We owe a debt of gratitude to Gregory Doran and the RSC for giving it an airing We are generally aware of the persecution of women in our history, frequently called witches. But here are a group of men (the playwrights) characterising a real event – the persecution and execution of Mother Sawyer as a witch – but giving her a sympathetic hearing. In fact, they go further.
THE WITCH OF EDMONTON isn’t really about the Witch – in plot terms – perhaps the title was clever marketing. The central plank of the play is around Frank Thorney and his marriage to Winnifride. He promises to be faithful to her while they are apart, but then goes off and marries Susan in order to get her money. He then murders Susan to get out of his trouble. Worse, he implicates his rivals for Susan and they are arrested.
The witch plot mirrors the action. It contrasts Frank’s wickedness with Mother Sawyer’s – stopping butter from setting, causing a stockman to kiss his cow’s backside, and other equally humorous things.
The play is skewed though in our interest by the extraordinary sympathetic character the playwrights create for Mother Sawyer – who tells us that she’s called a witch because she’s old, bent with age, and worst of all, poor. She does conjure up a devil – a charming dog called Tom. I’m sure Tom would have delighted Jacobean audiences as he does in the Swan today. Mother Sawyer, towards the end, tells us that (in her day) to be a witch or be called a with amounted to the same thing. No doubt at all where these playwrights’ sympathies sit. Giving the play the title they did, draws our attention to this.
Eileen Atkins, in a superb performance makes the whole thing click into place. Totally matter-of-fact, she has complete command physically and vocally of her material.
Her put-downs are beautifully placed, her comedy timing, importantly, perfect.
Her partner in crime, Tom, the dog, most elegantly created by Jay Simpson. He’s the opposite of what you might expect as casting – tall and slender; a Jacobean greyhound perhaps.
The most unsympathetic Frank Thorney is sympathetically played by Ian Bonar. He convinces us he’s not a villain but a straightforward young man, weak and increasingly out of his depth.
Gregory Doran directs with intelligence and an eye to the play’s multilayered nature. He brings out the comedy well. And it’s lovely to see the Morris (with hobby horse) and their dance become a rave.
All great fun. And all neatly reminding us that greed, cruelty and wickedness need no supernatural prodding in our society.
Joseph Arkley – Warbeck
Eileen Atkins – Elizabeth Sawyer
Joe Bannister – Somerton
Ian Bonar – Frank Thorney
Elspeth Brodie – Katherine
Faye Castelow – Susan
Liz Crowther – Anne Ratcliffe
Oliver Dench – Morris Dancer
Geoffrey Freshwater – Old Thorney
Shvorne Marks – Winnifride
Christopher Middleton – Old Banks
Michael Moreland – Old Ratcliffe
Ian Redford – Old Carter
David Rintoul – Sir Arthur Clarington
Jay Simpson – Dog
Timothy Speyer – Justice
Dafydd Llyr Thomas – Cuddy Banks
Director – Gregory Doran
Designer – Niki Turner
Lighting – Tim Mitchell
Music – Paul Englishby
Sound – Jonathan Ruddick
Movement – Michael Ashcroft