Rebecca Lenkiewicz tells a good story but she isn’t one to let the facts get in the way of a decent plot.
Her latest play, Jane Wenham: Witch of Walkern, which opened last night at Watford Palace Theatre, is “inspired by real events.”
She uses a real life character in a largely fictional tale of witchcraft, bigotry, ignorance and superstition set in the early 18th century.
The furore surrounding Wenham, a simple countrywoman and herbalist, from Hertfordshire, was akin to the notorious Salem trials of America 20 years earlier, and she is credited as being one of the last women in England to be found guilty of witchcraft.
After a near hysterical start we meet the play’s two protagonists, the rational and grounded bishop, Francis Hutchinson, and his nemesis, Rev Samuel Crane.
Both stand either side of an issue that has split the church. Hutchinson, well-travelled, logical and pragmatic, doesn’t believe in witchcraft and denounces it as mumbo-jumbo.
The devout Crane is intent on being the next witchfinder general, sniffing out the daughters of Satan on the say-so of village gossips. His religious fervour has consumed him.
But at the heart of this story, and possibly the paranoia that spawned witch-hunts throughout history is, it seems, good old-fashioned sex.
It is responsible for whipping up passions in the unlikeliest of men and women.
Here is a lurid tale of child abuse, homosexuality, rampant immorality, adultery and sin (not to mention torture of the elderly and the bloody fowl murder of a cockerel named James).
Pretty much everyone is at it and trying to cover up their misdeeds with prayer and a call for salvation.
Early on Crane is denounced as a virgin with all that implies (almost blotting his copybook by pleading for the local pub landlady to help “relieve” him of his anguish).
The only innocent is the very woman accused by vindictive villagers and we watch horrified as she is brutally tortured to admit her sin.
There are some shocking moments and some shocking dialogue (which caused last night’s audience much mirth, whether intentional or not).
David Acton’s earnest and no-nonsense bishop (who has a weakness for his former slave and now housekeeper) comes out as the hero of the piece as he fights for justice and sanity amid an increasingly hostile, baying mob.
While Tim Delap’s strongly played impassioned zealot, Crane, frequently brought gasps from theatre-goers astonished at the priest’s ignorance.
The women were less convincing, playing stereotypes that seem to have come straight out of an old Vincent Price/Hammer Horror melodrama.
I could hardly understand a word said by Amanda Bellamy’s Jane Wenham. I’ve lived in Hertfordshire, close to Walkern, and have never heard any peasant talk with such a thick accent but perhaps it has become gentrified over the years and I bow to the expertise of dialect coach Kat Hicks.
But Rachel Sanders is splendid as both the landlady, Widow Higgins, caught in a possible love triangle, and the distraught Bridget whose daughter dies in mysterious, possibly evil circumstances.
Ria Parry’s direction has produced an atmospheric drama though at times it is overrun by cliché.
Jane Wenham, produced by Out of Joint, WPT and Arcola, in association with Eastern Angles, runs at Watford Palace Theatre until this Saturday when it embarks on a national tour before moving to London’s Arcola in the New Year.
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern
Sex & sorcery, religious fervour and ignorance in the 1700s, forms the background to a new period play from Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern.