Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at the Arcola Theatre
Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the award-winning writer who has been prolifically active for over a decade, returns to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston with her newest work, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern. This could be considered something of a homecoming for Lenkiewicz, as her first play Soho: A Tale of Table Dancers opened at the Arcola in 2001. This return is a resounding success; although elements of this dark tale of a witch hunt in 18th century Hertfordshire are evocative (some may even suggest derivative) of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Lenkiewicz’s script does an excellent job of conveying the lust, hypocrisy and flawed theology of the characters that inhabit her world.
Delivered through a Brechtian filter (the cast are on display at all times, sat attentively around a Spartan stage), we are introduced to the inhabitants of Walkern, a parochial village that is polarised after the execution of supposed witch, Eleanor Thorn. Compounding the inflammatory gossip and hearsay spread by vindictive Priddy Goodstern (Judith Coke) and Widow Higgins (Rachel Sanders) is the theological zeal of Bishop Samuel Crane (Tim Delap), a young man enflamed with religious fervour and on a seemingly single-minded mission to purge Walkern of its perceived “rot”.
Contrasting this ill-founded fanaticism are Bishop Hutchinson (David Acton) and his Caribbean house servant, Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons), who both suggest that “hatred, like a fire, will catch”. Indeed, this hatred is brought into sharp relief during the lengthy exchanges between Hutchinson and Crane that highlight just how ludicrous accusations of witchery were. However, the focus of these intense and often impassioned conversations is Ann Thorn (Hannah Hutch), the crazed and troubled daughter of Eleanor, and Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy), an eccentric herbalist who becomes the focus of an increasingly shocking witch hunt.
Throughout Lenkiewicz’s intimate and compelling production, the audience are provided with insights into the insecurities and instincts for self-preservation that run rampant throughout Walkern. Driven by lust and fear, Lenkiewicz’s characters are deep and engaging, successfully drawing the audience into the tale and provoking sickening fascination, despite some questionable accents. Acton and Bellamy put in excellent turns as Crane and Wenham, not least during the saddening and frequently violent climax that provides closure to this candid, if dramatized, interpretation of 18th century life. In all, a darkly excellent exploration of historical England.
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is on at the Arcola Theatre from 5th until 30th January, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern here: