The Welkin at the National Theatre review ****

The Welkin

National Theatre Lyttleton, 4th February 2020

Rural Suffolk. 1759. A court case. There was only ever going to be one companion for the Tourist’s visit to see The Welkin. Step forward MS. A Tractor Boy by upbringing, if not birth, and an expert on all things legal and rural in the Medieval and Early Modern. Dad once again wells with pride as he writes these words.

Now admittedly this was a bit late for his practice and a little early for mine but the subject, a jury of 12 matrons mulling over the case of one Sally Poppy who may or may not be pregnant, the writer, Lucy Kirkwood no less, (NSFW, Chimerica, The Children, Mosquitoes on stage, and with Adult Material coming soon to Channel 4 and certain to rile the blue-rinses), director, James MacDonald, and a bravura all female, (well just about), cast, still had us very excited pre-game.

Natasha Cottriall (Whodunnit Unrehearsed), Jenny Galloway (The Starry Messenger), Haydn Gwynne (Coriolanus, Hedda Tesman), Zainab Hasan (Tamburlaine), Aysha Kala (An Adventure), Wendy Kweh (Top Girls, Describe the Night), Cecilia Noble (Faith, Hope and Charity, Downstate, Nine Night, The Amen Corner), Maxine Peake (Avalanche, Hamlet), Dawn Sievewright, June Watson (Uncle Vanya, John, Road, Escaped Alone, Good People), Hara Yannas (Amsterdam, Dealing With Clair, The Treatment, Oresteia), Brigid Zegeni (I’m Not Running, Twelfth Night) and Ria Zmitrowicz (The Doctor, Three Sisters, Gundog, X). What a line up. And the credits are just those I can testify too. At the risk of unwarranted favouritism, Cecilia Noble and Maxine Peake would be in my top 10 stage actresses if I had such a thing, and reading June Watson’s credits suggest she is literally incapable of backing a theatrical nag.

With this much acting talent on show there were instances when I thought that Lucy Kirkwood and the NT might be guilty of delighting us too much. Even with 2.5 hours running time, and an attempt at equitable distribution, some of the actors didn’t quite get the airtime to flesh out character. And Bunny Christie’s set, a grand Georgian municipal hall, with impressive, working, (in the sense of the Devil’s ingress in the first act’s concluding coup de theatre), fireplace, and Lee Curran’s bright lighting, created a clinical, painterly doll’s house effect which marooned many of the cast. I can see why the creatives wanted to restrict the furniture to a minimum, and, with the help of Imogen Knight’s movement, blocking was exemplary, but with a dozen or man bodies always on stage it did distract from the detail.

Mind you, prior to the main event, there were some stunning tableaux, as the women stepped out of a line to introduce themselves and, courtesy of a compartmentalised light-box, they performed their literal women’s work to the repetitive rhythm of Carolyn Downing’s sound design. (A nod to Kate Bush came later with a acapella Running Up That Hill; This Woman’s Work might also have hit the spot. After all you can never get enough of the greatest single musician of our age).

As did the funny accents. It was Suffolk and many of our matrons were of the middling, or lower, sort, even Haydn Gwynne’s apparent toff, but some were better at projecting beyond the activity than others.

Still minor quibbles. What mattered was the story, and the feminist message, and here I can report Ms Kirkwood and those charged with bringing this scale entertainment to life, played a blinder. Now there is no getting away from it. The Welkin is not a million miles away from Twelve Angry Men. Except that it involves a jury of women judging another woman in a time and place when such female agency was rare. And this, I was reliably informed by MS, was no flight of authorial fancy. “Matrons” were tasked with checking the veracity of claims to pregnancy from medieval times through to the early C19, and you smart people will no doubt recall the “offer” to Elizabeth Proctor to avoid the noose whilst she was pregnant. The Twelve Angry Men parallel continues into the device of having one woman, Maxine Peake’s Elizabeth Luke, as the Henry Fonda sympathetic voice of reason/conscience, entreating her peers, who, initially at least, have very different, and largely disdainful, views on Sally Poppy’s guilt and fidelity.

However the reasons for Elizabeth’s Luke’s persuasions, in a twist that is just about concealed for long enough, turn the play into something more than a commentary on justice and fairness. The perspectives of the matrons, the methods by which they assess Sally, their arguments and conversations, and especially the way in which, eventually, a man, Doctor Willis (Laurence Ubong Williams who also plays Sally’s grudgeful husband and the Justice), and his callous technology, is called upon to decide, all point up women’s experience and biology in a patriarchal world, then, and, by implication, now. And to cap it all there is nothing remotely sympathetic about Sally Poppy herself, guilty of infanticide according to her cuckolded husband, though she is still a victim of male power, (and, in a shocking conclusion, of class, even in death). Which allows Ria Zmitrowicz to go full-on stroppy in her portrayal which she is, based on recent turns at the Almeida, very, very good at.

There is plenty of humour, (much of it at the expense of Philip McGinley’s steward Mr Coombes), and poignancy in the dialogue and in the woman’s stories, and pacing in the disclosure to keep us on our toes, even if the set-up itself is, as I said earlier, somewhat static with words superseding action. Ms Kirkwood’s scholarship is never self-serving, and exposition, whilst not entirely mixed in to plot, doesn’t irk. This was a time when Enlightenment was supposed to banish superstition, specifically here witchcraft, the year of Halley’s comet, all of which LK explores in the women’s exchanges.

The wider message is how the justice system serves women differently. Until 1920, outside of this special case, women could not sit of juries or be judges. Women weren’t considered “capable” of administering justice. Crimes against women were ignored. Even now supposed promiscuity and culpability still colours the judgements of men, and other women, in rape cases. Women commit very little crime, but are often judged more harshly when they do.

An important play then with more to chew on even if it didn’t quite deliver the tense narrative it promised. Lucy Kirkwood and her collaborators were probably more concerned with the context around these women’s stories rather than the story itself and with delivering a production of exemplary quality, and event if you will, rather than pinning us back in our seats. For the cerebral MS and his Dad keen to fake knowledge, this was just the ticket but I can see why some reviewers found it just a little intellectually over-stuffed. It couldn’t match the economy or bite of Caryl Churchill but Lucy Kirkwood is edging closer to the godhead, in ambition if not quite execution.

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