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.

The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory review *****

The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory, 16th November 2019

Fannyed about and failed to book this when it came to Chichester. Wasn’t about to make the same mistake again so quick off the mark when the transfer to the MCF was announced and a three line whip to include the SO and, a new fellow traveller, TSLOM, whose literary knowledge might even exceed that of the SO herself.

Anyway, and at the risk of coming all over key board warrior alone in his bedroom, IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL THAT YOU DO NOT MISS THIS ON ITS THIRD OUTING. It will show at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 8th May to 26th September, and there are plenty of tickets left, which gives you no excuse even if you wait.

For this is one of the funniest and smartest plays you are likely to see in this or any other year. No great surprise given Laura Wade’s track record (Home, I’m Darling, Tipping the Velvet, Posh, Alice, Breathing Corpses, Colder Than Here) and a sympathetic, I assume, director in the form of partner Samuel West (Prue and Timmy’s boy for you canal lovers).

Easy enough to find out the central premise. The Watsons was a novel from 1803/4 that Jane Austen abandoned, (as she did in 1817 with Sanditon, which, as I am sure you are aware, Andrew Davies and ITV recently “completed”). JA produced about 80 pages, laying out all the characters, and some clues as to where it would end up, though whether as novella or full blown novel isn’t clear. Apparently loads of punters have had a stab at completing it, the Austen industry being a continuing British success story, though I doubt have been as successful in their efforts as Ms Wade.

On to the bijou stage at the MCF, mediated through Ben Stones’s, ingenious white box with props and plinth stage, and Mike Ashcroft’s precise movement direction, we meet all the characters from the original novel at a ball, obviously. Emma Watson (Grace Molony – perfect) is the youngest daughter of a widowed, and poorly, clergyman (John Wilson Goddard). She was brought up by a wealthy aunt, and is thus educated and refined, but after her benefactor remarries, she returns home to Daddy and her daft sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy). The sisters are, by dint of economic circumstance, looking to make a “good match”, with more than one eye on the dashing, though plainly caddish, Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams). His shortcomings are identified by Emma’s level headed eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon). Their neighbours include super toff, Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and her super awkward son (Joe Bannister), and his sprightly sister (Cat White). At the ball, accompanied by kindly chaperone Mrs Edwards (Elaine Claxton), she is introduced to local vicar Mr Howard (Tim Delap), a potential Mr Right, even if he veers towards the priggish, and his eager young nephew, Charles. Soon after Margaret returns home with grasping brother Robert (Sam Alexander) and his snobbish wife Mary (Sophie Duval). Nanny (Sally Bankes), looks on bemused.

So far, so, er, Jame Austen. And then the maid arrives, who is, to say the least a bit lippy and forward. Yes it is, and I am giving nothing away here, our very own playwright Laura (played by Louise Ford -also perfect), hot from “reality” to rescue Emma from making a crappy marriage choice from the three candidates, and boost female agency. When Emma, who isn’t, it must be said, altogether happy with the intervention, and the rest of the cast, have adjusted to this surprising turn of events the fun really begins. Meta doesn’t begin to describe as the cast take umbrage with being “characters” in a “play” and rebel against Laura’s authorship of their “lives”. This permits the dissection of class and gender, as in previous plays by Ms Wade, but against the backdrop of who owns a story, genius in the context that this was both unfinished and that so many of us have an obsessive interest in its author and her books, and the social mores it represents, well beyond what is there on the page, (JA I mean not LW, though, of course, as the conceit unfolds, we are very much invested in LW, the character of LW the playwright).

There are precedents for the play, notably Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which LW self-deprecatingly admits, but this is much more immediate in its impact. LW doesn’t abandon the comedy that flows from parody, though there are no cheap laughs here, nor does she abandon the search for logic in the face of what she is articulating. Even if that logic is as daft as the very idea of the willing suspension of disbelief in the first place. This is not clever-clever, up its own arse theory theatre, though. It will make you think about its themes but never at the expense of making you chuckle.

Sam West’s direction, and Ben Stokes’s costumes, are geared to this purpose, the conventions of period drama never entirely subverted even when the cast threatens anarchy to plot, and there is a knowing warmth throughout. This may be satire, but everyone involved plainly loves, and fetishises Austen, as much, if not more than the audience. When the production, including Richard Howell’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music, opens up on the Harold Pinter stage expect the brilliance of Laura Wade’s creation to be even more apparent.

Repeat. Do not miss this.