The Witch Of Edmonton – October 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and possibly others.

Edited and directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th October 2014

We missed the RSC’s previous Witch as we weren’t coming regularly to Stratford at the time, so this production was one we were very keen to see. This final part of the Roaring Girls season – Greg was accepted as an honorary ‘Roaring Girl’ by the other (female) directors – was the only one to be done in Jacobean dress, which made a pleasant change from the persistent updating in the other three productions. Modern dress or similar is fine, but we agreed with Greg’s point in the pre-show talk about the risk of not allowing the audience to make their own connections to present-day circumstances, something clearly not considered often enough by many directors today.

I’ll go into more detail on the pre-show later; for now I’ll just describe the set, and for once it won’t take very long. The floor of the stage was covered in crumbled tyres and bits of woodchip – kind to the actors (apparently) and suggesting a countryside feel. Across the back of the stage were two rows of tall stems – reeds, blighted corn or wheat, take your pick – with gaps in the rows to allow for entrances and exits. The stems continued round the auditorium to just beyond the side doors, giving the set a more enveloping feel during the pre-show, and, according to Greg, a rather creepy feeling as well. And that was it! We were told that a bed would be brought on at one point (it was) but otherwise the bare set was all we got. In addition, the action all took place on the ground level – very unusual for the Swan – which allowed for very fluid movement between locations. This was something which Greg particularly likes about the Swan, having discovered when he did Anthony and Cleopatra that the theatre does a lot of the work when it comes to changing scenes quickly. (I will just mention here that the wrap-around effect of the stems was rather lost during the performance, as the sides were mostly in darkness and I wasn’t aware of the foliage at all.)

We sat a few rows back by the right walkway. A bit of mist came up before the start, and when the lights dimmed, a young lady walked on to the stage to the sound of an occasional quack. As she stood in the middle of the space, she stroked her stomach tenderly, letting us know instantly that she was pregnant. This was Winnifride, who was soon joined by Frank Thorney, although at this point we didn’t know any names. It soon emerged that he was the father of her child and that they were newly and secretly married. He wanted to keep their marriage quiet because his father wouldn’t approve – he needed more time to persuade his father to accept Winnifride as a daughter-in-law – and he sent her off to her uncle’s place to wait for him for a few months. She was naturally unhappy with this arrangement as she wanted to spend time with her new husband, but he persuaded her it was for the best.

After she left, Sir Arthur Clarington arrived, and it became clear that he was Frank’s employer. Sir Arthur started out being worried about young Frank’s dalliance with Winnifride; turned out she was also one of Sir Arthur’s servants. He agreed to pay Frank a portion if he made an honest woman of her, and that gave Frank the support he needed to own up to having already done so. When Frank left – his father had asked him to come home – Winnifride came back, and it was immediately apparent that Sir Arthur’s motives were anything but generous; he’d had sex with Winnifride himself – the baby may well have been his – and he wanted to cover it up by getting her married off to the unsuspecting Frank. He got his comeuppance early on though; now she was a married woman, Winnifride wanted nothing more to do with Sir Arthur and she held him off.

Back in Edmonton we met Carter, a yeoman farmer, and Old Thorney, Frank’s father. Carter appeared to be well off. His two daughters, Susan and Katherine, were therefore extremely eligible, and two young sons of the gentry were hanging around them, ardently pretending to be in love. Warbeck, the taller of the two, was hoping to land Susan, but we could see it was entirely cynical on his part; he was a nasty piece of work. His friend Somerton was paying attention to Kate, and seemed a nicer chap, though still not as much in love with the lady as with her father’s money. Warbeck was to be unlucky, as Old Thorney, an impoverished gentleman, was busy agreeing to Carter’s terms for a marriage between Susan and Frank.

When Frank turned up, the deal was as good as done. Frank decided this wasn’t a good time to introduce the idea of his existing wedding to his father, although as it led to him becoming a bigamist perhaps it would have been smarter to own up. Drama isn’t built on people behaving well or intelligently however, so Frank not only denied the relationship with Winnifride, he produced a letter from Sir Arthur to show his sceptical father, in which Sir Arthur explicitly stated that Frank and Winnifride weren’t married. (It was something Sir Arthur had agreed to do before Frank left.) With son and father apparently on the same page, the wedding was set for the next day.

Now at last we got to see Mother Sawyer, the title character of the play. She wandered through the reed beds, looking for sticks to put on her fire. She was grey-haired, slightly hunch-backed and walked with a stick, but she wasn’t particularly odd or unpleasant. The chap who came charging on to shout at her was a different matter. Called Banks, he was angry that she was on his land and taking a few sticks from him, so much so that he hit her several times about the back using one of the sticks which she’d dropped. She’d snapped at him as well, but it was only words, and in the end she had to hobble off, unable to take revenge for her treatment because she wasn’t actually a witch at all.

The next group who came on were Morris dancers, arranging who would do what at their next dance. One young chap, Cuddy Banks, son of the nasty man from the previous scene, was not happy to be the hobby horse, but had to put up with it. When Mother Sawyer came along, they taunted her, calling her a witch, and left her on her own. As Mother Sawyer remained on stage, complaining about her lack of knowledge and power and wondering what she would have to do to get access to a demonic helpmate, a dark figure stepped out from the reeds at the back. In a dark body-suit, he appeared to be naked apart from a small pair of pants (with a significant bulge in the codpiece area). He had a long thin tail which curved away from his body and waved around a lot when he moved, a pair of horns running front to back and lying flat against his skull, and prominent spikes of bone down his spine. He overheard her cursing and came forward to offer his services. At this point, he wasn’t a dog, but stood on two feet. Mother Sawyer bargained with him, swapping her body and soul for his help in bringing down her enemies, and although she was disappointed that he couldn’t kill Banks for her – Banks was too good a man in other respects for the demon to be allowed to kill him – he was willing, able and ready to kill his cattle, blight his crops, etc. She sent him off to do those things – a down payment on the retribution to come.

When the dog had left, Cuddy returned, and asked Mother Sawyer to help him through her witchcraft. Five minutes before she would have had no power to help him; now she was about as fully equipped as a witch could be, so when he asked her to make Kate Carter fall in love with him, she saw it as another opportunity to be revenged on his father. She told Cuddy to turn away and summoned the devil again by stamping her foot. He arrived and they had a brief conference, after which the devil departed and Mother Sawyer gave Cuddy his instructions: he was to wait by a stile on his father’s land after dark and follow the first living thing he saw, which would take him to his love.

With Cuddy satisfied that he would be getting Kate, we turned to the marriage celebration. Frank, Susan and the rest were having a party, but Frank was troubled and Susan was sharp enough to spot it. They had a lengthy conversation alone on stage, and Frank mentioned some prophecy he’d been given that he would have two wives. Susan wasn’t too troubled by this; presumably she would die at some point and Frank would marry again. She was even happy that it might be Winnifride. She also thought that Frank wanted to leave to fight a duel with Warbeck, her unsuccessful suitor, but we knew better.

The Morris group came on again and were preparing for a dance the next day. Cuddy was anxious to be off for his appointment at the stile, and told the rest of the group that he would be back by midnight. They weren’t too happy, but there was nothing they could do about it, so they left.

The devil dog (and it was acting like a dog now) took on the shape of Katherine, and led Cuddy round the back of the stalls to fall in a mucky pond. In reality (if I can use such a term) Katherine came on through the reeds walking like a doll, with no life of her own. At the appropriate moment, the devil ‘entered’ this shell, and animated her. As she walked across the stage and off at the side, Cuddy followed her, mistaking his way in the dark and ending up in the water. When he came back on, he didn’t look that wet, but there were strands of pond weed festooned about his person; one strand came off and lay on the walkway near us for the rest of the half. He wasn’t happy, but ended up chatting to the devil dog and arranged that he would be present at the Morris dance the next morning.

Frank now came on with Winnifride, who was dressed as a boy. Frank was carrying a small chest, and it emerged that he planned to escape his predicament by leaving with Winnifride and taking Susan’s dowry, which would allow them to live a comfortable life abroad. He had arranged for Susan to meet him there to take his leave of her as if he were coming back. He introduced Winnifride as his (male) servant, and Susan spoke to him/her for a short while. It was difficult for Winnifride at first, but she pulled herself together and assured Susan that (s)he would look after Frank as if (s)he were actually his wife, putting her arm round him in a friendly way.

After sending Winnifride off to the horses with the money, Frank said his goodbyes and waited for Susan to leave him, but she wouldn’t. Desperate to get away before the rest of the family were up and about, Frank had a wicked idea prompted by the devil dog which had appeared behind him amongst the reeds: kill Susan. He’d given Winnifride his sword, so all he had was a small knife. He stabbed Susan once, justifying his actions by calling her a whore. He explained that he was already married, so that she was still unmarried and yet not a virgin anymore. She agreed with his assessment and was surprisingly quiet during her own murder, forgiving him as he held her in his arms. Then he stabbed her again, and after she died he stabbed and cut himself, banged his head against a tree (pillar) and then tied himself to the same tree to make it appear they’d been attacked and his wife killed by someone else. During this operation, the devil sprayed something from his mouth over Frank; from his later appearance I would guess it was blood. He then shouted loudly for help, and when the two fathers and some servants came on he described his ‘attackers’ in such a way as to effectively name Warbeck and Somerton. With Warbeck having been upset at losing Susan to Frank, the motive seemed obvious, and so he was immediately believed.

Carter behaved rather oddly during this scene. With his daughter lying dead on the ground he started calling her ‘whore’ and ‘slut’; this seemed to be provoked by nothing more than the fact that she hadn’t got up to greet him and wasn’t talking to him either. Grief can have strange effects, but still….

With the body removed and Frank helped off to have his wounds treated, the two accused, as yet ignorant of the crime they’d committed, met up with Sir Arthur and waited for the Morris dance to start. They were looking forward to it – a highlight of country life – and although it started a little late as Cuddy had been delayed, the dance was a pleasant diversion for all of us. The hobby horse was made from a horse’s skull, and before the dance Cuddy called for some water, then offered it to the ‘horse’ but it wouldn’t touch a drop: ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’! (The old ones are the best.)  The music struck up and the dance got underway, with the four dancers holding their sticks in various formations for the horse to jump over or through.

The dance went on for some time, and then the devil stepped in and held the end of the fiddle. Immediately the fiddle wouldn’t play and the dancing stopped. After a short period of puzzlement by the participants, the devil took the fiddle off the musician and started playing it himself. The tune was much livelier and even frantic, and all the others on stage were bewitched by it; even Sir Arthur and the two young gentlemen joined in. We laughed because those two took out hankies from their pockets and were waving them around as they danced, while Sir Arthur had a lovely piece of red ribbon which he was twirling around like a rhythmic gymnast. The dancers were also now clashing their sticks together, something which had been noticeably absent from the more genteel earlier version. For a short while during the frantic dancing, the hobby horse was waiting beside us, and it tried to nibble me! Naughty horse.

The devil eventually went back to the more sedate tune and the dancers fell to the ground exhausted, apart from Sir Arthur who carried on flaunting his ribbon. A constable and an officer came on and arrested Warbeck and Somerton, and as the party broke up, the devil disappeared and the fiddle was OK again. Interval.

The second half began with some men who were angry with Mother Sawyer as they were suffering from sick cattle, blighted crops and troubled womenfolk. They set fire to some of her thatch – not attached to the rest of the house at the time – as this was supposed to be a sure-fire (my apologies) way to detect a witch, who would instantly come when she saw the blaze. Mother Sawyer did indeed turn up and the mini-mob set on her, but were stopped by the arrival of Sir Arthur and a Justice. The men’s complaints were dismissed and they left, but then Sir Arthur and the Justice began to question Mother Sawyer about her activities. Asked point-blank if she was a witch, Mother Sawyer gave a long-winded response to the effect that the term ‘witch’ was open to individual interpretation. Eileen Atkins had a few pauses during this speech, but got herself back on track pretty quickly, and as this is still a preview (press night tomorrow) I’m sure she’ll be word perfect in no time.

Unable to get past her prevarications, and a barb or two which stung Sir Arthur’s conscience, the two gentlemen left and the devil dog turned up again. He gave her a progress report on her revenge project, illustrated by the arrival of a woman whom he had driven mad in retaliation for some wrong to Mother Sawyer. The woman’s husband also arrived, accompanied by some neighbours, and they weren’t a happy bunch. Having taken the mad woman off, they began threatening to arrest Mother Sawyer and the dog, which at this point they couldn’t see. Cuddy argued against this, claiming that it was just an ordinary dog and pretending to have barked himself when the devil dog had actually done so. The unhappy Edmonton folk went off to get a warrant for her arrest, Cuddy also left, and she and the dog went off together for “a holiday”.

The bed was brought on for Frank to lie in, as he was still recovering from his self-inflicted wounds. He was visited by Kate, also suffering from the loss of her sister, but she tried to help Frank get over his sorrow. She offered him some food, a chicken she’d prepared especially for him. He suddenly felt hungry and agreed to eat some, and when she went to look through his pockets for a knife, she found the murder weapon still covered in her sister’s blood. When Kate left to fetch her father, Frank caught a glimpse of Susan’s spirit behind the reeds, and then Winnifride, still in her man’s clothes, arrived to see her husband. She was still there when Carter arrived to accuse Frank of Susan’s murder. He had two of his servants carry on her body in a box and held his daughter as he made his accusation. While this was going on, I noticed that Winnifride nudged the chicken plate closer to the bed, and that Frank’s hand was reaching down that way – searching for a knife? Whatever that was about, nothing much came of it, although Frank did leap out of bed to attack Carter in a vain attempt to escape the murder accusation. He was carried off to prison along with poor Winnifride, the one I feel most sorry for in all this mess.

Mother Sawyer came on next. Her hair which had been tied up at the start had been becoming more ’relaxed’ through each scene, mainly because of the physical attacks on her. Now it was loose, hanging down behind her in a frizzy mass. She called on her devil dog but he wouldn’t come at first, and when he did turn up he looked different. There was very little of the black left so he looked mostly white, but the tail and spine ridges were still prominent. There were other changes too; he was no longer doing what she wanted as her time had come to pay the price for his assistance in her revenge spree. Mother Sawyer was remarkably quick to accept her situation, though she had no intention of weeping and wailing and begging for forgiveness; she’d done what she’d done and she was glad that she’d done it.

Cuddy Banks had one more confrontation with the re-coloured devil dog. Unlike the others, he’d only known the devil in dog shape, so he hadn’t been seduced in the same way. He was able to hold his own against the devil’s arguments, and even chased him off the stage at the end. It reminded me of The False Knight On The Road; although Cuddy wasn’t shown as being clever, he was straightforward enough not to get caught up in the devil’s snares. He also made a reference to Moll Cutpurse during this scene, which was entertaining given the inclusion of The Roaring Girl in the same season.

In the final scene, the Justice censured Sir Arthur for his part in the events which led to Susan’s death, and freed Warbeck and Somerton, who was now able to marry Kate. Winnifride was brought on, and she was miserable at the prospect of losing Frank. She was freed as having been an innocent party to the whole affair, and both Carter and Thorney did their best to reassure her that she would be taken care of. Mother Sawyer was then dragged on to be hung as a witch. There were some insults hurled back and forth between her and the rest of the people, but she was barely repentant at the last.

After Mother Sawyer was taken off, Frank was brought on and after expressing his repentance was forgiven by all and sundry, although some of the little speeches sounded pretty insincere to me; Warbeck’s, for example. Frank was led off to his execution, and as most of the others trooped off as well we were left at the end with just Winnifride, centre stage, again stroking her stomach and looking very worried. The lights went out, and that was that.

It was an interesting play, with a lot to like about it. There wasn’t as much humour as the pre-show talk had led me to expect, but there was some, and it may well get funnier as the run goes on. We’re due to see it again in a few weeks, so I’ll be able to see what progress they’ve made in that direction. The story was well told, with the characters pretty clear from the start and their interconnections established early on. The devil dog was superb – an excellent performance by Jay Simpson – and Eileen Atkins is already pretty strong in the title role. Good support all round makes this a decent production, and given that we’re not likely to see it much again I’m glad this has been done in a more ‘traditional’ style; it gives us a better sense of the play.

The piece itself does have its limitations, however. Having three writers isn’t necessarily a drawback, and on the whole the play seems to work well across the plot strands, but the amount of depth to the characters is very uneven, and this may well have been a major cause. Mother Sawyer has plenty to do, and makes a good case for the argument that society creates witches out of single, isolated old women to provide handy scapegoats for anything which society can’t handle any other way. She has lots of good lines, and is a strong personality who would probably piss off the rich and powerful in any time or place. Frank is likewise well provided with dialogue and soliloquys to inform us of his dilemma, while Cuddy is a more traditional clown role, with more opportunities for comic business than detailed characterisation.

But the rest of the parts are scanty; we get glimpses of their ‘type’ but nothing more. Just who is this Banks whom Mother Sawyer detests so much? We see him shouting at her and beating her, but apart from that and the devil’s somewhat dubious testimony that the man does some good in the community, we see very little of him throughout the play. Sir Arthur has a lot of potential for humour and for social commentary on the hypocrisy of the ruling class, but after his first scene, he pops in and out of the play whenever he’s needed as an authority figure and does little else. Winnifride has a slightly more robust part than the other young women, but even she is a bit of a blank, and the others came across as simply stereotypical mouthpieces saying the words that need to be said.

The play was taken from a pamphlet which gave the details of the testimony and trial of the real-life Witch of Edmonton, so perhaps this factor plus the rush to get a topical work onto the stage while the public’s appetite was strong, may have led to such skimping on the details. And being so used to the scope of Shakespeare’s works, where the plays can be re-interpreted time and again, mining rich new psychological depths in many of the characters, we’re apt to think that all plays from that time were or should be at that level.  It’s an “odorous” comparison, so I’ll conclude my notes on this performance by saying that I’m very happy that we’ll be seeing it again, and I’d be delighted to catch another production sometime in the future.

Now for the pre-show talk. Greg Doran, assisted by Nicky Cox (who actually got in more than three questions this time around) gave us an entertaining insight into the play and the production. The choice of this play was based on the desire to provide a range of strong and varied roles for women; an elderly woman who, as an outsider, was accused of being a witch, fitted very well into the selection. Greg felt this is an extraordinary play which needs an extraordinary actress in the title role, and he was delighted when Eileen Atkins agreed to play the part. She had been in the very first play he saw in Stratford, so he felt it was appropriate to have her back in the Swan for this production.

He felt the title was misleading, and that the play was about the pressures in society which lead people to do terrible things and then look for scapegoats to blame. In this case, the witch is the scapegoat. The different elements of society in the play each have their moments, but come together in their denunciation of the witch. Showing the very specific workings of that society was important. There’s a yeoman farmer on the way up, two young aristocrats who were hanging around the farmer’s daughters having fallen on hard times, and an isolated woman on the outskirts of society who was at the bottom of the heap.

They looked at why witchcraft became such a popular subject on the Jacobethan stage. It was partly because of King James’ own interest in the subject and his belief in witchcraft. Despite having written his book on witchcraft to repudiate Reginald Scott’s work, which suggested that witches were created by an ignorant and gullible populace, James himself became sceptical as time went on, even bringing boy actors into trials to show that such manifestations as fits could easily be feigned. This play allows for both views, even though the devil actually walks on stage and takes the form of a dog.

There were at least three different authors, and although there has been speculation about who wrote what, the cast didn’t spend time trying to figure anything out, particularly as the play comes together with one voice. The different plots strands had to be brought together, which wasn’t always easy; the murder plot seemed a bit darker and they had to decide on the tone of the piece as a whole. It’s a tragi-comedy; there is humour in the play but it can be subversive. They tried to be as truthful as possible about the nuances of the marriage plot.

The devil dog was a tricky thing to get right. Greg managed to get a Demon Mastiff on stage in The Orphan of Zhao by using a puppet – the Chinese aren’t that bothered apparently and just use a cast member dressed up in appropriate clothing – but that wouldn’t work for this play. The devil turns into a dog because that’s how the people it interacts with see it; Mother Sawyer calls it a dog, and others add to that, so it’s simply following their projections as to what it is.

The play is based on a real case in Edmonton, then a rural community, now a suburb of London. There was some disparagement of the devil who turns up – he was given Edmonton, after all, and has aspirations to move to the big city by the end of the play. Although modern audiences mainly don’t believe in witches, we can still accept the story and the characters as a metaphor for the outsider, someone we don’t like on whom we dump our negativity. The play considers whether evil exists outside of us or internally, and looks at how we can pull evil to us.

When asked if they explored the resonance for today’s audiences, Greg mentioned that Eileen Atkins herself was keen to make Mother Sawyer an ordinary woman. They didn’t want to justify the intolerance and abuse she experienced by making her ugly, unpleasant, crazy or stupid. By setting the play in its own period, the audience could decide for themselves “Gosh, it’s just like today” instead of forcing it on them. Apparently the pamphlet describing the original trial mentioned that Mother Sawyer had been kept awake for two days before giving her evidence, so any strange admissions that she made had to be put into that context.

Greg prefers to begin planning his productions by getting his lead actor; he’s currently working on a production for the end of 2016. So it can be a long process, but sometimes the pieces fall into place gradually or just come together.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at

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