Theatre Group | Vinegar Tom – Caryl Churchill's '70's play about 17th century witch hunts is still relevant

photo: Jess Macdonald

It is symptomatic of the world we live in that a 1970s radical feminist play, set during the craze of witch trials in 17th century England, can be made to feel so relevant in 2013. Churchill’s play, written following the 1970 Equal Pay Act, explores the oppression of women through the lens of a 17th century witch hunt trial: four women are accused of being witches and a fifth simply mad because she won’t submit to her father’s decisions. Accusations arise out of neighbourly quarrels (dying cows, souring milk, male impotence), malice, and want of scapegoats; the sadism of self appointed witch hunters and conviction of the natural weakness and wickedness of women.

Lucie Turner was a strong, defiant Alice throughout and Katherine Mannion, playing her mother, was a superb cranky old Joan, often making the audience laugh; in turn, Janelle Thorpe chillingly conveyed the sadistic pleasure that Goody, the witch hunter assistant, took in her work. Churchill’s original is a play written to shock, making liberal use of Brechtian techniques with which to keep the audience intellectually engaged with the issues. Claire O’Shea’s directing toned down the radicalism, aware that singing ‘cunt’ to punk music is not so shocking nowadays. Instead, the songs that break up the narrative line to keeping the audience intellectually engaged, were accompanied by a live band playing folk music, much more keeping with the setting as well.

There were some harrowing scenes that made for uneasy watching: the bleeding ‘cure’ of Betty (Amelia Dabell), the local landowner’s daughter accused of madness or illness for refusing to marry, tied up and screaming; the pseudo-science examination of the supposed witches, with a particularly fine, distressing performance by Dominique Alexander. The finale, it must be said, was brilliantly satirical. Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of the popular 15th century tome “Malleus Maleficarum” (“The Hammer of Witches”) came on stage with top hats and canes in an all singing, all dancing lecture to the audience on why women are witches. The answer was an old one: weakness in mind and flesh, a sexual sex. And on stage come three of the cast in corsets and high heels, strutting their stuff, the obligatory female props so often brought out by men. An great satire of the continual male definition of women by their gender.

What is striking in this production is not its feminism but the subtler, broader themes of the perceived danger in being different to the patriarchy ruling the status quo. By toning down the overt radicalism and attempts to shock this production of Vinegar Tom highlights certain themes that the witch hunting trials bring up, namely the safety in conforming and arbitrariness in deciding, proving who doesn’t conform is a danger. If you’re different, as one of the songs in the play goes, “…whatever you do, you must pay.” Pay for being different, pay for not being ‘us’. For women the original sin wasn’t biting the apple at the Devil’s instigation; it was, and in some places still is, being a woman. In their outstanding revival of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, LUU Theatre Group created theatre as it ought to be: entertaining, intellectually engaging and relevant for our times.

Rodolfo Barradas

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