Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern (Arcola Theatre)

Ria Parry’s Out of Joint production finishes a UK tour in London

Dancing in a sinister fashion; cuddling a chicken and floating down the river on an old door. These are all things which, according to several of the characters in Rebecca Lenkiewicz‘s new play, make a woman a witch. If I had been alive around three hundred years ago, I reckon I would have been burnt, hanged, or worse.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern really hits home the fact that in the Eighteenth century, doing pretty much anything odd would mark you out as sorceress. Centring on the true story of a village in Hertfordshire in 1712, the play tells of one of the final witch trials in England. That of Jane Wenham, a poor woman in her sixties who made potions and remedies from plants.

In Walkern, one woman has already been hanged as a witch. It is that woman’s daughter, Ann Thorn (Hannah Hutch) who is friends with Wenham, who begins to crumble under the strain of her loss. Eighteen, and troubled by her sexuality and a multitude of dark thoughts, she accuses her old friend of witchery the way her mother had been.

Lenkiewicz’s script is fascinating and finely wrought, with fresh and well-crafted dialogue. It winds through the lives of the villagers at speed – the pub widow Higgins, the blind witch-crying harridan Priddy – and never loses us in the tangle of stories. But amid the tales of the entire village, Jane Wenham herself gets diluted. At its climax, in the scene where a Pricker repeatedly cuts Wenham to see if she will bleed (if she doesn’t she’s a witch) – it is horrifying. But the horror arrives and then dissipates all too quickly.

Ria Parry directs a fluid production which fits snugly into the Arcola Theatre after an extensive tour across the UK. It’s coolly lit by Richard Howell with a creepingly intense sound design from Max Pappenheim. Parry manages the many scene changes well and beautifully builds up the sense of life during that time, with all its dirt, ignorance and superstition. Amanda Bellamy is heartbreaking and very real as Jane Wenham, angry and fiercely independent until the end, while Cat Simmons gives a strong turn as Kemi Martha, a Caribbean slave given her freedom by a Bishop, but still shackled by society's vicious prejudice.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern runs at Arcola Theatre until 30 January.