Theatre Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at The West Yorkshire Playhouse

by Leo Owen

NOT long after the hysteria of witch accusations has died down, folk are still suspicious and liable to seek blame, all the while mindful of the damage such trials caused small communities. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play tells the story of what’s believed to be the last English witch trial.

Designer, James Button opts for a simple set design in keeping with the humble village life of the play’s setting. Centre stage a vertical ladder represents the scaffold used to hang a local herbalist who brought “shame to Walkern”. In the aftermath of her death, guilt and fear are rife. Her daughter is left fending for herself and other unmarried women desperately attempt to lower their profile.

The play’s titular character is first introduced as a forager and being a "Godless creature" before Lenkiewicz quickly makes it apparent that in truth Jane (Amanda Bellamy) is arguably the most honourable character while the rest of the village are indeed grappling with their own morality: adultery, suppressed lesbian urges, prejudice, racism… The new sanctimonious parson, Samuel Crane (Tim Delap), believes witches are everywhere and is secretly tempted by widow Higgins (Rachel Sanders), the alehouse owner. Local farmer, Fergal McGuire (Andrew Macklin) does little too to hide his desire for Higgins.

Meanwhile Bishop Hutchinson (David Acton) fears for his parish, remembering the destructive effect of other famous witch trials on the community. Seemingly a God fearing man, like many of the other villagers, Hutchinson is a slave to his own temptation. Failing to dampen his sexual appetite, he abuses his power over his servant and former slave, Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons).

After a village child tragically drowns, accusations are made. Jane sleeping with a pet chicken and living alone is evidence enough to prove she’s a witch and therefore responsible for the child’s death. Lenkiewicz’s first act is long and slow-moving dominated by weighty religious conversations between overly pious villagers behind closed doors. It’s argued that if Jane "is innocent, she will save herself” or they are generously “simply sending her to God".

This act of kindness is what finally ups the pace. The hunting down of Jane sees villagers and previous friends traitorously chant "Kill the bitch" while feverishly banging pots and pans. When Hutchinson refuses to allow Crane to drown Jane, the witch pricker is called in. In the play’s most memorable scenes the side of the gallows illuminates to form a cross and a topless Jane cries out as blood trickles down her breasts. Button creates atmosphere with spooky owl sounds, music and the patter of rain.

After Miller’s Crucible, The Witch of Walkern does nothing new, feeling a tad redundant and far too drawn-out. Kemi is reminiscent of Miller’s Tituba, there’s once again a pairing of an over-zealous priest with a more sceptical one but Lenkiewicz focuses on the adults, rather than impressionable children. Having said this, the cast work well together with the material they have, although “Herefordshire” accents are a tad off-putting and possibly inaccurate for the time. Those unfamiliar with Miller’s work may well enjoy Walkern as its themes of intolerance, paedophilia and religious fanaticism are likely to resonate with today’s audience. Like the effect of the trials on the villagers, The Witch of Walkern is likely to divide.