Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, directed by Ria Parry, has recently begun a national tour. The play draws on the story the 1712 witch hunt in the Hertfordshire village of Walkern. Opening with the distressed daughter of a woman who has recently been hanged after accusations of witchcraft, the play focuses on the religious fanatic Samuel Crane’s belief that he can save the souls of witches. After the mysterious death of a young girl, Crane focuses his hunt on the eccentric Jane Wenham. Through this story of female repression, Parry’s production successfully raises and addresses questions surrounding female sexuality, male dominance and religious supremacy.
Owing to the subject matter, this play is incredibly intense, yet there are moments of profound bravery, strength and touching compassion that ensure that the experience is an enjoyable one. Occasionally accompanied by heart-breaking songs sung by the servant girl Kemi Martha, (Cat Simmons) this dark play offers a glimpse of the human ability for compassion, and criticises an apparent refusal to exercise this ability. Speaking to the ever relevant issue of equality, there are scenes of touching tenderness between the female characters that serve to offer a reprieve from the constant fear of patriarchal governance founded in religion.
The entire cast seemed invested in the importance of the play in performing an uncomfortable moment in English history to a riveted audience. Notably, Tim Delap played the role of the ardent chaplain Samuel Crane with such sincerity and likeability that his portrayal of astoundingly flawed misogynistic logic becomes a terrifying insight into the abuse of power by well respected men.
There is a moment at which the earnest Crane declares Wenham as a spinster and therefore a witch. The mutual feeling of shock within the audience was palpable. To have one of the darkest aspects of England’s history depicted so fluidly in Delap’s respectable Crane was truly thought provoking. With the cast’s impressive and obvious dedication to their roles, there was the sense of an earnest need to bring this play to a contemporary audience in order to highlight our society’s current issues with equality.
The opinions portrayed in the play served at times to stagger an audience who seemed caught somewhere between an exasperated eye roll and shocked laughter. The few moments of humour within such a meaningful play were somewhat awkwardly received by an audience visibly uncertain of their laughter. Conversely, there were ripples of perhaps unwarranted laughter during the more intense dramatic scenes.
However, far from detracting from the performance, this only served to highlight the necessity for such plays in breaking through awkwardness and allowing audiences to acknowledge the more painful aspects of history. This plays calls for an unashamed confrontation of past female repression and its relevance to society today.
With flawless attention to detail in the costumes and set, the entire cast are able to provide impressive performances in a powerful but thoroughly enjoyable play that draws on history to throw today’s society into the limelight.
Image: Richard Davenport/The Guardian