Somewhere in the middle of The Welkin, Ria Zmitrowicz’s petulant, bitter prisoner Sally Poppy starts to growl. Brattish, dirty, and deeply unlikeable, she garbles her words. “I wanted and I wanted and I wanted and I wanted,” she snarls. The Welkin made me hungry. It gives you that belly-deep, broiling sense of want. Only out of such sprawling, stubborn piece of writing comes this kind of rapacity.
The plot draws on an archaic tradition, wherein a “jury of matrons” (women who had experience with child-bearing) were called upon to determine whether a female convict was with child – something which could prevent her from being sentenced to death. Set in 1759 in rural Suffolk, twelve women, all from varying backgrounds, are empanelled, forbidden from taking food, water, or flame (they smuggle in bread and gin anyway) until they make a verdict on Sally Poppy’s condition – a young, unhappy woman, accused of murdering a young, wealthy girl. If they unanimously agree that she is pregnant, she will be shipped to the colonies instead of being hanged. Meanwhile, a crowd bays outside.
It wouldn’t be fair to classify The Welkin as purely a courtroom drama (I refuse to refer to it as Twelve Angry Women) – really, it wouldn’t be fair to classify it as “purely” anything. It is a stained piece of work, flecked with blood and urine and milk. It strains at self-imposed limits, always staring impertinently up at the sky (“welkin” is an archaism for “heavens”). There are shards embedded in its ostensibly naturalistic fabric – moments of stark strangeness which don’t smooth out. It could have been a simple one-room play, but it isn’t that – it reaches outside itself for something more creeping and expansive. Kirkwood dangles the possibility of witchcraft and devilry in front of our noses, and then whips them away – these minute, messy experiences of womanhood are strange and wild enough without that kind of trick.
Maxine Peake is ostensibly the lead, but as the play unfurls, it becomes a properly ensemble piece of work. There is such a delight in seeing so many faces from elsewhere in British theatre – Natasha Cottriall, Bambi-like in Anna Bella Eema and winsomely lovely here, Zainab Hasan, fresh from Blank and wonderful as the dim Mary Middleton, Wendy Kweh, such a precise performer in A Kettle of Fish and Top Girls, lending a quiet dignity to the only woman in the room unable to bear children, and Cecilia Noble, just the most consistently brilliant actress, so good in Nine Night, giving a deliciously haughty performance. They take such pleasure in the earthy, anachronistic language, with James McDonald conducting all twelve voices into a discordant symphony (and I do mean discordant – these accents err into different continents, let alone counties) – allowing vignettes and half-forgotten memories to stretch out and linger on that enormous Lyttelton stage. And it’s funny! God it’s funny. It is so richly textured, with various small moments so thick with feeling that when the second half’s plot contrivances come, they feel like unwelcome intrusions.
Bunny Christie’s set, coupled with Lee Curran’s painterly lighting design, immediately feels cloistered and accentuates these women’s limited freedom – from that initial, astonishing tableau of housework, the women backlit and sectioned off from each other, to the claustrophobic and crepuscular scene between Sally and her estranged husband, to the greyly anonymous courtroom they are sequestered in. The jury have been afforded a sliver of power, but it is power which is entirely tied to their bodily functions. Fitting, then, that you can feel The Welkin stirring in your body – as Sally’s nipples are twisted and yanked in an effort to produce milk, as she attempts to squat over a bucket to piss, as, for a brief moment, she closes her eyes and rests her cheek in the palm of another woman’s hand. Bodies are such effort. Nothing comes easy. Women in The Welkin are tied down, bound by their bodies and their work (the same thing, in this context) – too busy pulling leeks from the ground to be able to look up as Halley’s Comet streaks across the sky.
They are called upon for their labour, in all senses of the word. Rarely do they speak with sentimentality about either pregnancy or children. Body parts are parsed out – grunts and groans thickly pepper the air, swollen feet are pricked to relieve menopausal hot flushes, and a winking metal speculum (not so unlike the ones used today) is inserted into a diseased cervix. There is so much horrific relish in the images Kirkwood musters – clots of metallic menstrual blood and droplets of yellow breast milk, all lingered over in front of Philip McGinley’s quietly seething Mr Coombes – forbidden from speaking in the room and taunted by the women for being somewhat lacking in the testicular region. What little power they have is wielded with grotty delight.
And there are these peculiar wrinkles in time that Kirkwood slips in, almost under the radar. Sally mumbles about playing aeroplanes with the murdered girl and the cast break into a rendition of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” I can’t quite explain them, but I loved them, and they have lingered. It felt like Kirkwood was expanding her reach, extending a hand from the stage to mould something four-dimensional, just slightly beyond my own field of vision but which still feels reassuring. An echo coming from the past and the future, all at once.
For every declarative statement it gives (“Nobody blames God when there is a woman to blame instead”) it raises dozens more questions which it refuses to answer. The Welkin is full of secrets, all sewn into the soft folds of muddied fabric.
The Welkin is on at National Theatre until 23rd May. More info and tickets here.