“If she’s innocent, we’re simply sending her to God early”
The most powerful image of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern comes courtesy of the centrepiece of James Button’s design, a timber structure illuminated as a church cross on one side and extending as a noose-bearing gallows on the other. It encapsulates the central thesis of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play – that twisted symbiosis between the Church and the witch-hunts that scarred society for so long – with an eloquence that characterises much of Ria Parry’s production, which is about to embark on a considerable UK tour.
An Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre co-production, in association with Eastern Angles, Lenkiewicz based her drama on real-life events in a Hertfordshire village, an all-too-recognisable tale of society seized by collective fervour. It’s been several decades since any witch hunts but when tragedy falls on the village of Walkern, suspicion quickly falls upon the local cunning woman Jane Walkern and her herbal remedies amid whispers of the return of witchcraft, stoked by new priest Samuel Crane who is determined, quite literally, to get his woman.
Elements of the story may seem familiar – a young woman making false accusations, churchmen straining their cassocks with repressed sexuality, the fringes of society too easily abandoned by the rest – but there’s also enough that’s fascinatingly different. Tim Delap’s austerely handsome Crane arrives to assist David Acton’s ailing pastor who on his travels, rescued a Caribbean woman from slavery in Virginia, giving her a job in his household, further complicating the picture of femininity in Walkern as the villagers debate whether witchcraft is responsible for the tragedies that keep occurring.
With witch trials having taken place in their past, hindsight becomes a valuable part of the older characters’ opinions and Lenkiewicz is thus able to incorporate some absorbing theories about why the witch-hunts arose and how they were shaped, as much as a class battle as anything and financial inducements keeping the momentum going, though the storytelling does lose a little steam in the baggier second half and an overly protracted dénouement.
There are strong performances though. Cat Simmons’ singing servant girl is a beguiling presence throughout, Delap and Acton contrast beautifully in their depictions of religious devotion in the real world, and Rachel Sanders stands out with gorgeous nuance as the sensuous Widow Higgins. Amanda Bellamy is perhaps naturally elusive as the accused Jane Wenham though one craves a little more to connect to as in the vivid performance of Hannah Hutch’s misguided Ann Thorn. Intriguing rather than truly spell-binding, still worth a look if it comes near to you.