Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton, by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. RADA, London


The Witch of Edmonton was written in 1621 in the later years of King James' reign. Since an early trip to Denmark had sparked an interest in the dark side, James became obsessed with witchcraft, writing a whole book, Daemologie, on the topic in 1597.

With such royal encouragement, it is no coincidence that James' reign festered with witch hunts and accusations of devil worship - in Scotland in particular. In his early fervour in the 1590s, James himself had personally attended the trial and punishments of many unfortunate, marginal women. Understandably, then, this climate of moral panic by royal appointment had an influence upon the theatre of the time; most notably in Shakespeare's Macbeth, which was obviously written with the regal patron in mind. The Witch of Edmonton, is perhaps the most notable other Jacobean drama of the genre; however, it takes a more ambiguous moral line on Britain's weird sisters than the Scottish play.

The Witch of Edmonton is about a real case in London in early 1621 - the year the play was written. The character at the centre of the the narrative was a real woman, Elizabeth Sawyer, who was accused of consorting with the devil, and putting spells on the good people of Edmonton - a small sheep rearing town, eight miles from the City. An Anglican minister, Henry Goodcole, visited the desperate woman in Newgate Prison during the time of her interrogations, and wrote a popular pamphlet on the episode, The wonderfull discouerie of ELIZABETH SAWYER a Witch, late of Edmonton, her conuiction and condemnation and Death. Together with the relation of the Diuels (or devils). The poor destitute was executed on 19 April in Newgate Prison - one of hundreds of women tortured and executed during James' rule.

The play was a collaboration by three notable figures in Jacobean theatre, who would all have rubbed shoulders with Shakespeare on a regular basis. William Rowley was a larger than life actor, famous for his clowns. As a playwright he wrote many comedic parts for himself, collaborating with others, notably John Fletcher (Shakespeare's protege, and writing partner on Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play, Cardenio). This networking of creatives lay at the heart of the cultural high point that was the Elizabethan/ Jacobean golden age. As now with American television comedies, accomplished individual scriptwriters would come together to pen brilliant, incisive shows.

Thomas Dekker was the oldest and most established of the collaborators. As with many at the heart of London theatre at the time, he had an eventful life. He once spectacularly fell out with Ben Jonson, to the point where they were mocking each other in their scripts. In 1599, he produced what became his most famous play, The Shoemaker's Holiday. He was, however, a perennial profligate, and struggled with debt throughout his life. From 1612, at the height of his powers and fame, he spent seven years in prison for a debt offence (owing forty shillings to the father of John Webster, author of Duchess of Malfi). Emerging with white hair, he was quickly back to work, and wrote this play a couple of years after his release.

The youngest of the trio, John Ford came from a typical background for a playwright at the time - Oxbridge, then an early training in Law (in this case at the Middle Temple). Ford was a brilliant writer who produced plays that explored the dark side of life, most notably in 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore - which has a rather comedic title to the modern ear, but is actually a bleak examination of incest.

The Witch of Edmonton itself weaves two narratives together. The first is the story of the demonisation of an old eccentric woman, Elizabeth Sawyer by the people of Edmonton. The play highlights how the odd casual insult to a marginal woman back then, could quickly escalate to a full blown alarum about demonic possession. The fact that the script is based upon real events makes the victimisation of Elizabeth harrowing to watch.

Key to the whole narrative is the point where the despondent and desperate woman ultimately appeals to the devil to take revenge on her tormentors. A demonic black dog duly appears, which demands her soul for his help. Throughout much British history, black dogs were considered malicious - and used as a potent symbol of evil. A particularly infamous spectre at the time was the Newgate black dog, a spirit that appeared near the notorious prison there. Indeed, Newgate Prison was the place where Sawyer was tried and executed.

The black dog is the link between the two narratives. In the second plot, a young couple have just got married in secret because of the threat of being exposed. The young man, however, is obliged to return to his father's house, and is coerced into a second marriage by his father. Tormented by his duplicity, the bigamist is touched by the demon dog, and murders his new bride. He also is hanged at the prison. Two routes to the same fate. One cause of both - the evil "black dog".

RADA is a wonderful modern space, with three public stages - and three plays were running concurrently when I attended. The bar was therefore packed with lively, chatting theatre types. Luvvie central. As I waited for the call, Jonathan Pryce sat down next to me.

The theatre was intimate but airy, with a deep stage. The director, Philip Franks and designer, Adrian Linford, took full advantage of the stage space, and used the depth well - transforming it from a rubbish tip, to a shop, to a bar, to a prison, with swift positioning of props.

This being RADA, the cast were wonderful, without exception. However, certain performances did stand out. In the opening scenes, Tom Hanson played the dissolute Sir Arthur Clarington with engaging mischief and dark wit. Phoebe Pryce played the vulnerable, wronged, Susan Carter with a deep sensitivity - and marked her rapid descent from vivacious girl to murder victim with a skilful tragic lightness. I think she would be perfect in the role of Rosalind, or Lady Macbeth.

For me, however, the star of the show was Eliza Butterworth, who played the witch. Her portrayal of a downtrodden, defiant woman at the edge of society - and sanity - was chilling and heartbreaking. There was a tone of brutalised disappointment in her voice; a fragility in her defiance, that was very moving and real. Bravo to Eliza Butterworth - indeed bravo to all the cast, and the set designers for putting on such an entertaining and stirring performance.

As I walked out of RADA through the echoing streets of Bloomsbury, I reflected on the cruelty of British society throughout much of its history. If one had a tic, or epilepsy, or Parkinson's or Tourette's in the sixteenth century, one faced taboo, prejudice and continuous threat of insult or panic. If one was a bit vague, or odd, or different - particularly as a woman - then one was vulnerable, with little protection from the state; which - as we have seen - was often the main mover in these kinds of zealous alarums.

Outside the Tavistock Hotel, I was passed by three laughing student types - one with a nose stud and purple streaks in her hair; all linking arms. How much better things are today. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.