You can’t avoid witchcraft in Jacobean drama and Gregory Doran has ended his Roaring Girls season at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre with a story that is devilishly interesting.
The Witch Of Edmonton has the elements of two plays that share a common theme – evil.
On the one hand you have the story of Frank Thorney who marries a serving girl he has made pregnant only to then find himself forced into a bigamous marriage in order to inherit his father’s estate.
What is a man to do? Consumed by panic and then guilt he does the only thing he can. Murder one of his wives, stage a phoney assault on himself and blame two innocent young men.
Then there is the story of the witch. Eileen Atkins’ Mother Sawyer is nothing of the sort but she is branded a witch by the ignorant country folk of Edmonton, north London, because she lives alone, is disabled and is fiercely independent.
The play, written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford (with input from others) was based on the true story of Elizabeth Sawyer from Edmonton, who was tried as a witch in 1621 and hanged at Tyburn.
On stage Sawyer, angry and frustrated at being victimised – “I’m shunned and hated like a sickness!” she cries – accidentally summons the Devil in the form of a black dog.
In return for her body and soul he will do mischief for her and, actually, it turns out to be no more than that. There’s far more of Satan in Thorney than the rather fetching, almost naked, Jay Simpson as the supernatural hound from hell.
Described as a tragicomedy the humour, such as it is, is provided by a group of simple (and I use the word literally) Morris dancers. In reality there is little to laugh at in this dark and grim story.
Ian Bonar, as Frank, initially has our sympathy – or as much as you can give to a man in the sort of fix he faces – but the devil’s in the detail and wickedness prevails as he carries out his heinous crime.
The brutal injuries he inflicts upon himself are shocking to watch.
Atkins gives a feisty performance as the hunch-backed old crone who enjoys living up to her reputation thanks to the power given to her by the Devil.
The reliable Ian Redford and David Rintoul provide excellent support as always. There’s no-one better at playing a rogue than Rintoul, and no-one more worthy to play an “honest Hertfordshire yeoman” than Redford.
Jay Simpson’s turn as the Devil in disguise made a few women’s hearts flutter (especially when he bent over close to the front row).
The make-up department have been working overtime to transform him with prosthetic horns, ears and tail plus covering most of him (except a remarkably white set of teeth) in black body paint.
But it’s more than just make-up. It’s fascinating to watch as Simpson jerks, postures and poses as a creature of the night.
Faye Castelow is the picture of innocence as loved-up Susan (wife number two) while Elspeth Brodie, as her sister Katherine, is chilling – with black lenses – as an evil spirit.
It’s very atmospheric but is let down by occasionally clunky dialogue and a lack of tension. Mother Sawyer is dispatched so casually you’d have thought she was going on her holidays.