Reviews Edinburgh Published 22 August 2015

The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster

Pleasance Courtyard

Subtle enchantment.

Alice Saville

A touring troupe of actors are staging a witch trial for the entertainment of a rural village. But they’re not drawing the audiences they used to, and burning old women is going out of fashion. Gareth Jandrell’s new play uses this ingenious framing structure to breathe haunting new life into the story of the notorious 16th century trial of the Pendle Witches.

This footsore troupe has a star turn in the form of Jennet Device (Amy Blair), the girl who testified against her mother and grandmother at the tender age of nine, sending them to be burnt. As the ward of Roger Nowell, she’s forced to replay her trauma again and again to dwindling crowds of witch-hating villagers, as he and Thomas Potts relive their biggest witch-hunting success.

Amy Blair is uncomfortable to watch as she captures all the cornered-animal stillness and anger of Jennet, a girl who’s made herself both notorious and utterly friendless. Jandrell’s text beats a careful path around the best known elements of her story, avoiding hackneyed trial scenes and flickering flames. Instead, he scrutinises the emotional scars the trial has left, years on, with the probing gaze of a veteran witchfinder.

The present and remembered past interlock neatly under Dan Coleman’s direction, which creates a spellbindingly rich atmosphere of claustrophobic stillness. It’s a world where witches are real, and long-resting grudges can be unearthed in a second when there’s a chance of bringing justice. But although these three characters believe in the justice of bringing witchery to light, there’s a kind of compassion to their impersonations of the Pendle Witches. They’re revealed as desperate women, using fetishes made from clay and twigs as their own recourse against a society that doesn’t want them. And where their illegitimate children and poverty alone is more than enough grounds for suspicion when lawmen come calling.

The narrative’s intricate structure means that the ending falls strangely: the real show was over years before. But this subtly beautiful production has its own enchantment, not to be forgotten.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster Show Info


Produced by Dawn State

Directed by Dan Coleman

Written by Gareth Jandrell

Cast includes Amy Blair, Dan Nicholson and Christopher Birks

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