The Witch of Edmonton
by William, Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford &C.
Directed by Gregory Doran
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Wednesday 26th November 2014, 13.30 performance
Joseph Arkley – Warbeck
Eileen Atkins – Elizabeth Sawyer
Joe Bannister – Somerton
Ian Bonar – Frank Thorney
Elspeth Brodie – Katherine
Faye Castelow – Susan
Liz Crowther – Anne Ratcliffe
Oliver Dench – Morris Dancer
Geoffrey Freshwater – Old Thorney
Shvorne Marks – Winnifride
Christopher Middleton – Old Banks
Michael Moreland – Old Ratcliffe
Ian Redford – Old Carter
David Rintoul – Sir Arthur Clarington
Jay Simpson – Dog
Timothy Speyer – Justice
Dafydd Llyr Thomas – Cuddy Banks
King James I had a great interest in witches, when he wasn’t commissioning bible translations. He started the criminal actions and persecution of witches in Scotland in 1590, thirteen years before he became king of England too. Seventy witches around Berwick were accused of plotting to kill him in 1589. He wrote a book called Daemenologie in 1597. In Scotland there were around twenty witchcraft trials a year during his reign, with half of them being executed. Over 90% of the victims were female.
Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer, the Witch of Edmonton
The 16th and 17th century persisted in the belief that elderly women were dangerous agents for the black arts. It’s an odd one. If you were advising a child which stranger to turn to in case of danger, in a public place I think you’d put a grandmother figure at the top of the list of safe adult strangers. Not in the 17th century when the fear of female was rampant. Presumably those women who’d survived multiple childbirth and total lack of economic power reached a point where they stopped caring about being subservient and got stroppy. The Witch of Edmonton was first performed in 1621, and was based on a recent witchcraft case. Elizabeth Sawyer had been executed in April 1621, so it was current news. It was performed by Prince Charles’ Men, i.e. the company of the crown prince, in front of the king just after Christmas 1621.
The “&C” on the list of writers dates back to the first published edition in 1658, and John Webster is thought by some to be “&C” (and company?). I know how he feels – alphabetically challenged, so not enough room on the line to print his name! Word research suggests Middleton. Or “&C” could be people who revised it in 1658 before publication. The authors were not in alphabetical order, and if the 20th / 21st century rule on co-writers existed then, breaking the alphabetical order implies unequal contribution, with the largest contributor first. Research showed that the styles don’t mesh. It is assumed Dekker wrote the Mother Sawyer witch scenes, Ford wrote the bigamy and murder plot about Frank Thorney and Rowley did the low life gullible rustic bits with Cuddy and the Morris Dancers.
Briefly … we start with Frank Thorney and Winnifrede, both servants of Sir Arthur Clarington. Frank has secretly married Winnifrede (why do they bother to keep the 17th century spelling? It sounds like Winifred) who is pregnant. Frank doesn’t know that his dastardly master, Sir Arthur is the father of the unborn child. Frank is persuaded to marry her (again). Trouble is, his dad, Old Thorney is in debt and needs Frank to marry Susan, daughter of the farmer, Master Carter. Frank solves it by marrying Susan as well, beating her suitor, Warbeck, to it as Susan has always fancied him. Warbeck’s pal, Somerton, is after Susan’s sister, Katherine. I hope I’m not losing you.
Enter old Mother Sawyer who is a poor old lady, who gets knocked about by Banks, a bit of a swine who won’t let her pick up odd twigs on his land as firewood. He beats her. His son, Cuddy, a rustic comic (believe me, generic and vague Mummerset accents rule the day in this play), enters rustically with some rustic Morris Dancers, Being ignorant and rustic they are mortally afeared of the old lady, as rustics would be, and deride her.
Being falsely accused of witchcraft and pissed off, and who wouldn’t be, she summons up a familiar, a diabolic Black Dog who sucks her blood and agrees to help her mess up the lives of all around in the village. That’s what happens. Frank is a bigamist. Winnifrede his first wife dresses as a man and poses as his servant. He murders his second wife, Susan. Then he cuts himself and bangs his head on a post and has the dog tie him to a tree so it looks as if they had both been attacked. He accuses Warbeck and Somerton of murdering Susan. Throughout, the rustic Cuddy & The Rustics appear on and off for no particular reason, except Cuddy fancies Susan’s sister, and is also the only person apart from Mother Swayer who can see the otherwise invisible Black Dog.
In part 2, Frank is in bed as an injured invalid, tended by his sister-in-law, Katherine. She discovers his bloodied knife, as used to slaughter Susan. All is revealed. Frank is the murderer. He and the witch get taken off to be executed. Then people bore on for 10-15 minutes with speeches even though we know the plot is basically over.
Unusually for this RSC season of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays about women (The Roaring Girl season) this one is done in 17th century costume, without any extraneous high concept. It’s probably wise. The Crucible at the Old Vic this year also went for generic 17th century, though that play works in a way the Witch Of Edmonton does not, basically because it’s a great piece of drama, and this is not. Witchcraft doesn’t work in the same way in 2014, or any recent era. That is a major problem with the play actually. Most people won’t identify with personifications of the devil as a black dog in Britain where only 18% of the population believe in the existence of the devil. It might work better in the USA, where 57% believe the devil is real, though that falls to 48% for the college educated.
The cast have been in rep for The Roaring Girl, Arden of Faversham, The White Devil and The Witch of Edmonton. I thought all the roles here difficult: bland, nothing much to grab hold of. Reviews single out Jay Simpson as the dog, and Eileen Atkins as the witch, Mother Sawyer. Mother Sawyer isn’t on stage very much as it happens. Eileen Atkins has lovely timing, but it’s not a great part. The black dog is the only role with an interesting costume or much room for manoeuvre. Cuddy has a great comedy face. We found the whole play somewhat undercooked. We compared the rather flat entrances of Cuddy’s Morris Dancers. When The Globe set the rude mechanicals as Morris Dancer like this, they had business every time they came on. Not here.
The Morris dancers, end of Part 1. Cuddy as the Hobby Horse
The stand out part of the whole play though ends the first half. That’s when the Morris Dancers are assailed by the invisible (to them) Black Dog, and the fiddle stops making any sound. They’re perplexed, but a bit more magic and the fiddler goes wild, as does everyone on stage. Best part of the play by a mile and it needed lots more like this. It’s all reminiscent of Charlie Daniels’ great “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The Black Dog has some good “invisibility” business later. I wanted much more of this. For a “Tragicomedy” the play got very, very few laughs. Well, no “laughs” at all. Let’s say very few mild titters.
Frank Thorney (Ian Bonar) and Susan Carter (Faye Castelow)
As for tragedy and drama, the big scene would be the murder of Sue (second bigamist marriage) by Frank. Nice touches of the Black Dog in the background here. However, spare me any more murders with a tiny bladed paring knife. Also the signature stabbing of a woman in this RSC season of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors is definitely “below the waist.’ Causing the blood to look like spectacular menstruation.
There were bits that struck me. Is the line “Get thee to your nunnery” a deliberate reference to Hamlet? A 1621 in joke? What about “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink …” Was that an existing proverb, or do the references all go back to this play?
Mother Sawyer (Eileen Atkins) and her “familiar”, The Black Dog (Jay Simpson)
We didn’t like the play at all, and found the production pedestrian. I guess the RSC has certainly splashed the cash on set design for its other productions this year, so perhaps Gregory Doran as the RSC boss felt it incumbent to economize on his own production. The set is a forest of twigs … effective, but unchanging. The costumes, apart from the Black Dog (or devil), are generic, in 17th century dull hues, and boring. The two interesting costumes, Warbeck and Somerton seem predicated by the text. The music was used very sparingly. No special effects. No traps. No lifts. No flying.
Our negative reaction seemed pretty much universal … there was one very subdued curtain call at the end with polite soft applause. I don’t think I’ve seen any RSC production with fewer than two curtain calls. In the interval we overheard two women deciding to call it a day and skip the second half. They did. We were admittedly, in the cheap seats, looking down on the action from on high. It influences reaction.
It’s been an odd 2014 season at Stratford. Sublime for Henry IV Part I, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won. Interesting though flawed for The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham. I’m glad we saw them A little less for The White Devil and a lot less for a weak Two Gentlemen of Verona. This one is the weakest of the lot. It’s a poor play, and the direction does nothing to convince me otherwise.
Excellent on background, very poor synopsis (unusually for the RSC). Fortunately we’d read the excruciatingly detailed Wikipedia synopsis in advance.