Since taking the reins at the RSC in 2013, Greg Doran’s own work for the company as a director has affirmed a commitment to setting early modern drama in its context; faithful, one might say safe productions of Richard II and the Henry IVs have eschewed innovative presentation in favour of textual rigour and starry casting. The same is true of his staging of this rarely-revived Jacobean domestic tragedy, but here the results are rather more exciting; if textual fidelity stops the production from being – at just shy of three hours – quite the taut thing it could be, it’s still a gripping rediscovery.
While Eileen Atkins’ name has dominated the publicity for the production, the real draw here, for many, is the play itself. The Witch of Edmonton is a sprawling feast of a domestic tragedy (traged-ies, one might say) which interweaves the story of Mother Sawyer responding to the town’s repeated accusations of witchcraft by making a pact with the devil to show them just how witch-like she can be, with the doomed narrative of Frank Thorney, forced into bigamy as a net of deceit, financial pressure and threatened disinheritance closes in on him. A bloated third strand about a naïve country yokel and his Morris-men could do with being cut back to expose the taut thriller which, at just shy of three hours, this production can’t wholly be, but there’s plenty to chew on.
On the whole then, the stakes here are high, and glaringly contemporary. We live in a society of ruthless scapegoating which continues to marginalise and vilify figures and social groups thought of as outsiders; as the poor, and outspoken older women seemingly continue to be. Atkins gives a big, smart, bitterly funny performance in the title role, veering between wide-eyed victimhood and sneering cruelty with relish; the honesty of the pain she registers at being beaten simply for collecting firewood allows us to somehow admire the wicked audacity with which she comes to take her revenge. This complexity is central to the play’s appeal. Played out on a stage strewn with wood shavings and surrounded by ominously looming sticks, there is more than a hint of Macbeth’s heath, and, as in that play, the presentation of ‘evil’ here is as a force which – in the form of Jay Simpson’s mischievously feral dog – connives its way into the cracks of human frailty.
Some have suggested that the work’s tripartite authorship – generally it is thought that Sawyer was written by Dekker and the bigamy plot by Ford, with Rowley contributing the Morris-men scenes – results in the absence of a strong internal logic for how the dog operates across each of the writer’s sections. But this seems to me quite the point: it’s a far more multivalent presentation of Old Tom than one gets in, say, Faustus, precisely because it suggests the opportunistic, unpredictable nature of the devil’s meddling. To Mother Sawyer, he is not only an agent of revenge, but a loving familiar whose purpose is as much to assuage her loneliness as to carry out her dark will; in the best Thorney scene, where Frank confesses his bigamy to Susan, the devil is unseen to all but the audience, but creates his own malign havoc by invisibly driving the domestic trauma; feeding on circumstance.
Here, what seems to unify these ‘circumstances’ is there having been created by the forces of patriarchy. If the subjugation of Mother Sawyer is one type of oppression then so too is the sad tale of Ian Bonar’s brilliantly troubled Frank, who marries Winnifredde (Shvorne Marks) so as to protect her dignity when he is deceitfully convinced of having impregnated her, but is then forced into also marrying Susan – a quietly moving Faye Castelow – at the demand of his father, whose estate will fall to ruin without the dowry that comes with a yeoman’s daughter. It feels as though Frank knows as well as we do that this can’t end well, but this is a world in which nobody – men, women, fathers, mothers, nobles or peasantry – is well-served at the hands of the merciless class and gender structures facilitated by the very real Satan figure skulking around the stage.
If some of the discussion of narrative detail here seems a little vague, it is because even though the play is almost four hundred years-old, it feels unfair to talk plot as though it is as widely known as that of Shakespeare’s plays. One of the chief joys in watching this production is to be taken aback by some of the narrative and dramatic audacity on display; to slowly realise that though there are distinct echoes of the Bard – and indeed of the recently-revived Arden of Faversham (discussed in more detail here) – this is most definitely its own complex, scary, occasionally harrowing beast. The moral knots feel all the more knotty for Doran and designer Niki Turner having presented them in context rather than attempting to modernise them; this is a production which gets real mileage from encouraging audiences to see for themselves a through-line that connects Rowley, Dekker and Ford’s world with our own.