That might sound dull, but it is anything but in Bunny Christie’s sly design. Three hours later the play ends with three women looking up at the sky, it’s vast expanse, the possibilities it holds.
Design by Bunny Christie. Photos by Brinkhoff Moegenburg
In between we get a knotty and gripping historical play that always seems quietly contemporary as it charts the way that personal stories collide with shifting societal attitudes, the way that control over women’s bodies and colonialism go hand in hand, and how class and power retain their grip. About how women are boxed in. It’s good too on the way women, particularly those who have known too little love in their lives, become in thrall to romantic love.
It’s 1759. Halley’s comet is expected to appear and Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz), a young woman who deserted her husband for another man, has already been tried and found guilty of the murder of the 11-year-old daughter of the local gentry. Sally does not deny being an accomplice, and her lover has already swung for the crime. But she pleads “the belly” which could save her from the gallows but not from transportation. So, twelve matrons are summoned from the butter churning and the leek pulling to the courthouse to decide whether Sally really is pregnant. Outside the crowd bays for blood.
There are shades, of course, of Twelve Angry Men. But this is not just a female, time travelling version by any means. There is a brilliant little scene in which each of the women “kisses the book” which is brilliantly revealing not just about each individual woman but what marriage means and how women’s lives but not their minds are contained. It’s a bit like a 18th century A Chorus Line.
The women appear to have been given power by the court but in fact, as Kirkwood makes clear, they are confined in every way: by the room in which they must make their decision, by the authority of men, and by their own prejudices and life experiences. Cecilia Noble is deliciously comic as Emma, a woman who insists she knows her own mind. Cecilia teams up with Haydn Gwynne’s Charlotte Carey, who for reasons of her class, is appointed to speak for all the others. Into the group comes the local midwife Elizabeth Luke (Maxine Peake) who brought Sally into the world and who is determined not to vote to dispatch her from it.
Kirkwood makes the whole thing thornier still by ensuring that Sally is not the most sympathetic of young women. Sally’s history is written across Zmitrowicz’s face, her defiant stare, the sulky drop of her mouth. It makes the final moments all the more poignant as we see the young women she might have been, scanning the endless horizons with wonder in her eyes, looking for the future. Neither does she turn Elizabeth into a crusader. This is a play that comes with a fair few plot twists, which in itself is quite refreshing and unusual in contemporary drama. It is a confident play full of shining moments.
It is an absolute joy to see more than a dozen women filling the Lyttelton stage, all the more so because each one of them is so clearly defined. You feel that every one of these women, whatever their circumstances, has a fully developed emotional hinterland.
But it doesn’t always feel as if director James Macdonald’s production ever quite keeps the foot on the accelerator that the play’s narrative drive requires to keep it motoring. More unforgivably he doesn’t ensure that accents and acoustics don’t scupper audibility. It’s welcome to see a play on one of the National’s stages that gives women a real voice; it is less of a landmark if you don’t ensure all those voices can be heard.
The Welkin runs at the National Theatre until Sat 23 May.