Out of Joint Theatre Company’s Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern concerns itself with the eternal struggle between good and evil. Set in a rural Norfolk village Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play will no doubt invite comparisons with Miller’s The Crucible, concerned as they both are with the themes of truth and the human propensity to persecute those who do not fit into the mainstream.
Reverend Francis Hutchinson is the one voice of sanity in a village swept away by hysteria. David Acton infuses his role with a delicious blend of indignity and exasperation. Up against the religious and moral righteousness of new reverend Samuel Crane – played with frightening earnestness by Tim Delap – he is, as he knows all too well, fighting a losing battle. But fight he does.
Indeed, perhaps the most notale feature of this production are the performances. Rachel Sanders is outstanding in dual roles as bereaved mother Bridget Hurst and the serving wench widow; Amanda Bellamy is at times mesmerising as Jane, enthusing her role with an intriguing childlike mysticism. Judith Coke, Hannah Hutch, Andrew Macklin and Cat Simmons all help to convey a quite crushing sense of claustrophobia.
James Button’s set, with its ominous gallows centrepiece, is an ever present reminder that the stakes could not be higher. Indeed, the inquisition scene which sees Jane ‘pricked’ is, in its sheer barbarity, a moment where the urge to shout ‘For God’s sake stop!’ has to be quelled. The camp-fire gatherings are also worthy of mention: crackling flames and stories of depravity abound.
Once into its stride the momentum in this production builds with bewildering alacrity, as unintentional as this aspect might be it’s one that injects the second act with a compelling sense of urgency. Indeed, the pace of the second act contrasts sharply with a first act that occasionally feels a little sluggish. If the sheer weight of exposition can be tolerated early on, it’s full speed ahead after the interval.
Dramatically speaking Lenkiewicz’s script has some very tense moments. There are, however, one or two aspects that do conspire to dilute the momentum. Reverend Hutchinson’s relationship with servant girl Kemi does little more than highlight the fact that even men of the cloth are human too. Ending the play with this sub-plot is an interesting departure from classical structuring.
Though the play is ostensibly called Jane Wenham, rather disappointingly the character of Jane is arguably never truly developed. We only ever catch the briefest of glimpses of a woman whom one feels ought to be a strong, unforgettable presence in the play, central to the drama. As it is Jane does at times feel like a supporting role in her own play.
With so much exposition in the first half, there’s quite a lot to do in the second act. Thus, it all whips by thereafter, the hysteria, the accusations, the trial. Even Jane’s exoneration happens in the blink of an eye, abruptly even. Whereas Miller’s play evokes the sheer paranoia and mass hysteria of such witch-hunts, Lenkiwiecz’s offering seems content to skirt over the psychological implications.
Dramatic deficiencies aside, there’s still a whole lot to like about this production. Out of Joint have certainly created a powerful and timely piece of drama in Jane Wenham. The season of the witch is upon us, and if it’s unsettling you want, look no further.
Besides, it’s not as if it could happen now, is it?
This review first appeared on The British Theatre Guide