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The Last Witch (Edinburgh)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Rona Munro's The Last Witch, the flagship production in this year's EIF theatre programme, is a poetic, visceral and deeply sensual reimagining of the story behind the last woman to be burned for witchcraft in Scotland in 1727 (which also happened to be the year of Isaac Newton's death).

Whilst not a play big on surprises and at times inconsistently staged, it features a powerhouse performance from Kathryn Howden as Janet Horne, the highland widow who pays the ultimate price for being a woman able to out-think and overpower her weak spirited male counterparts.

As one would expect from a play dealing with the issue of witchcraft, there's a constant subtext of bewilderment that any woman could have suffered Horne's fate. But Munro resists the temptation of portraying the men as mere brutes, and paints them instead as an insecure, impotent and altogether unenlightened collection of lost souls.

Chief among them is Captain David Ross, the soldier-turned-sheriff who is tasked by a toadying local clergyman to investigate claims that Horne has cursed the cattle of neighbouring crofter Douglas Begg. The accusations, of course, are ludicrous, but rather than cower, Horne instead seduces Ross before humiliating him publicly. Her combination of sexual and spiritual prowess proves to be her downfall, and despite brave protestations by teenage daughter Helen (who is subsequently cared for by Begg's wife Elspeth), her fate is sealed.

There are some neat design touches in Dominic Hill's production, notably a circular sunken playing space, equally effective as an open hillside and a windowless torture chamber. Other aspects are more incongruous, particularly some melodramatic fire effects and a rather pointless and distracting bewigged harpsichordist, present throughout Act One.

But the acting is impeccable, with Howden dominating the stage like a caged lion (literally so after the interval), utterly believable as a woman capable of "charming the fish from the sea". She's well matched by Andy Clark as the emotionally paralysed Ross, and Hannah Donaldson as the physically fragile but spiritually robust Helen, who must face her own demons and rebuild a life from the ashes.


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