Friday, January 24, 2020
The Welkin @ Lyttleton Theatre...
The play is a sort of Twelve Angry (Wo)Men meets Blackadder's Nursey meets The Crucible meets Agatha Christie i.e. an angry, funny, tragic whodunit.
Taking its title from an old literary term for the vault of the sky, The Welkin is set in 1759 and revolves around a group of women in rural Suffolk faced with a grave decision. As the country is waiting for Halley’s Comet to appear and convicted murderer Sally Poppy (a spirited Ria Zmitrowicz) claims to be pregnant and therefore exempt from the death penalty, a jury of 12 women must decide whether she is telling the truth or lying to escape the noose.
The play starts with a striking, living tableau of women doing housework. Designer Bunny Christie makes the whole thing look like a painting.
We then meet midwife Lizzy Luke (Maxine Peake) who is churning milk when minor local dignitary Mr Coombes (Philip McGinley) comes to enlist her to join the women's jury.
The play then follows Lizzy as she prepares to defend the girl at the court house, with a mob baying for blood outside, and the matrons wrestling with their new authority, and the devil in their midst.
Having delivered hundreds of babies, including the convict herself, Lizzie has the expertise to recognise early pregnancy, but she is troubled by the moral weight of the decision. And others in the jury seem to just want to see Sally executed, baby or no baby.
Playwright Lucy Kirkwood, who explored international relations between the US and China in 2013's dazzling Olivier-winner Chimerica, turns her considerable talents here to exploring the themes of justice and power in this epic yet intimate story.
James Macdonald directs an atmospheric production, using blackouts, projected titles and neon lights to build the tension between scenes.
Back in the locked room above the court house, as the women debate the predicament and scrutinise the prisoner for signs of swelling or lactation, they share their own experiences and opinions with gutsy glee. Kirkwood gives such depth and insight in the course of the three-hour drama that we invest in each character. It’s glorious (and all too rare) to see a stage full of women and a narrative that doesn’t revolve around men.
Belly laughs, gasps and knowing nods abound as the confessional candour shows how little the female experience has changed from the late 1750s to the present day. The show is especially eloquent on shared but unseen suffering, from menopausal sweats to recurrent miscarriage. But it’s also alive with drama, intrigue and plot twists.
Peake’s Lizzie and Zmitrowicz’s Sally are both great of course but there is a strong ensemble here too. Haydn Gwynne’s cultivated commanding toff Charlotte and Cecilia Noble’s terminally disapproving Emma almost steal the play. Zainab Hasan’s Mary is broodingly effective, and Ayesha Kala’s hilariously, defiantly dim bulb Peg is comedy gold. Brigid Zengeni as the mute Sarah Hollis, Wendy Kweh as the childless Helen and Dawn Sievewright as Scottish Kitty Givens are also all notably good.
For all its vivacity and ambition, The Welkin is far from perfect. It needs perhaps editing down and tightening up a bit. But this rabble of rowdy women have more than enough life and freshness to leave us hooked right until the brutal, bitter end.
And a big shout out to the spontaneous rendition of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill too.