A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault of the sky, and the scope of that word indicates the scale of her ambition. The thrill of watching director James Macdonald’s wholly arresting National Theatre production is witnessing Kirkwood’s theatrical and intellectual ambition being so disturbingly and vividly realized.
For all that the play is set on the border between the remote English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk in 1759, the play unobtrusively hums with contemporary resonances. The battle for power by the powerless, the examination of truth and who controls it, and last but by no means least, the off-stage presence of a threatening and baying mob all point to — blessedly unspoken — parallels not just with the current disputed agency of women but with voices of the politically disenfranchised. Kirkwood’s engrossing drama is wedded not to literal argument but to metaphor, and although the word itself is never uttered, this is, in part, startlingly about Brexit.
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“There’s a crowd fifty deep outside the assizes waiting to see it, but she pleads the belly. We have eleven women empanelled but must have a twelfth.” So says Mr. Coombes (Philip McGinley) as he persuades local midwife Elizabeth (Maxine Peake) to join the jury to judge the sentence of convicted murderer Sally Poppy (foul-mouthed and fiercely unrepentant Ria Zmitrowicz.)
The line relates to historical fact underpinning Kirkwood’s fiction: the 18th-century fear of killing an unborn child meant a guilty female prisoner who was pregnant would be transported to Australia rather than be hanged. To judge whether or not she really was pregnant, a jury of twelve matrons would be gathered.
We first see the women in a major visual coup. Backlit by Lee Curran and accompanied by Carolyn Downing’s vivid sound design, twelve individual vertical panels spanning the full height and width of the stage reveal the women at work in starkly beautiful silhouette, washing and drying, cleaning and caring. From there, aside from a single terse, two-character scene titled “The Night in Question,” in which Sally’s guilt is established by her abandoned husband, the women are presented locked in the courtroom where their lives are refracted through the prism of the trial.
Unlike Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” which is faintly echoed in the play (a community, bound by restrictions, at war with itself and ideas of truth), this drama about people facing group-think and mob mentality is much tougher on its protagonists. Kirkwood refuses easy sympathies.
Although technically the victim, Sally flagrantly refuses to see herself as such. Even Elizabeth, her defender, played by Peake with immense fervor and authority, describes her as “a nasty, stupid, wicked wretch.” And what’s more, Zmitrowicz’s fervid, raging Sally does nothing whatsoever to endear herself to the women and, by extension, to the audience. All of which makes the play’s arguments in her favor much more satisfyingly complicated.
If there is a weakness in the first act, it’s to do with the scale of so many characters being introduced. After highly witty introductions (there are unexpected laughs laced throughout), some of the exposition undeniably becalms the pace. And Bunny Christie’s vast, grey room of a set rightly makes the women look ill at ease, but its size means there is little for the sound to bounce off, which brings problems of audibility. That, plus uneven accents among the cast, means moments and some detail are currently being lost.
But after an explosive climax to the first act, the second gathers momentum as the women confront one other and life-defining secrets are uncovered, consistently forcing both the characters and the audience to re-evalute their preconceptions. And, in tandem with the detailed work of Macdonald and his highly characterized cast, it’s here that Kirkwood’s juggling act of keeping twelve women plus Sally and Coombes all fully alive on stage pays increasing dramatic dividends.
Christie’s costumes are exclusively in period, but the play’s ideas, not least about the stifling control of the patriarchy, are not. Indeed, Kirkwood’s paralleling of past and present is clear from the outset with the author instruction that the casting “reflects the present day population of the place the play is being performed in, not East Anglia in the 1750s.” It grows ever clearer as the women begin to chafe against their lack of agency. “Nobody blames God when there is a woman to blame instead,” remonstrates Elizabeth.
And as the stakes rise towards the end, the present is at last brought fully into focus with typical audacity. In a rare moment of shared understanding, the women begin to sing. The music Kirkwood deploys is not an eighteenth-century song remote from audience recognition, but a lilting, a cappella arrangement of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” “And if I only could/ I’d make a deal with God/ And I’d get him to swap our places.”
Numerous cast members shine, especially Cecilia Noble playing gloriously high status as the most utterly implacable of the matrons; dry-as-a-bone, all-knowing Jenny Galloway; and no-nonsense, pragmatic June Watson. The final scenes revel in dramatic reversals but rather than being gratuitous, they feel fully earned. Airing unpalatable truths tests everyone’s strength of compassion, and the shocking climax and the entire world of the play’s dangerously binary politics clings like a shroud long after the curtain falls.
The impact of Caryl Churchill on Kirkwood is undeniable. “The Welkin” owes a clear debt to the ideas of “Top Girls” and, more specifically, to “Fen,” Churchill’s impassioned play about the hard graft of rural women’s lives. Yet Kirkwood’s dramatic, highly articulate vision transcends both those influences. As she proved in the past, her voice is not only powerful but very much her own.