Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton at The Swan, Stratford

I rolled up to the Swan at Stratford on Wednesday 19th with a party of students who will be taking my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course next term to see the current production of The Witch of Edmonton. These are a few notes of my impressions, and no doubt pedantic. As I was saying subsequently to a colleague, if I were directing any such play, my cast would have to act all the footnotes, and the production would last four and a half hours.

Jay Simpson as Tom the Devil-Dog, Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer, and set design.

First, the stage setting is excellently well conceived, simple and effective: the apron part of the stage bare, but textured, the rear part of the stage a thicket of stylised reeds or withies. This brilliantly suggests a margin, a wilderness, a world that’s just outside the Christian parish. From here, Elizabeth Sawyer emerges, and the devil Tom, or it is where the villagers conduct panicky searches.

I was less entirely persuaded by the costuming. Eileen Atkins is in suitable grey. I had some feeling that, having come up with the stage set, and the splendid attire for Jay Simpson as the devil dog, the designer took rest on her laurels. Specifically, I thought Frank Thorney was inattentively costumed: too down-at-heel for a character who is indeed a servant, but who aspires to be more than that, a pretentious talker who would be more conscious, in his attire, of the image he’s projecting.

Jim Dale in Carry on Stabbing, no, apologies, Ian Bonar as Frank Thorney

So to the direction by Gregory Doran, which has been much praised by the critics. It did seem to me that the audience were getting the point of Frank – as, quite early on, in the laughter at his ‘Am I a talker?’ This even though that character and his tangled affairs must come as a challenge to all that part of the audience that don’t know the play. I hadn’t really noticed just how close to a confession to Susan Frank gets (prior to the actual murder).

A director works with what she or he has, and in this case, Doran had Eileen Atkins out of retirement to play the role of Mother Sawyer. Atkins has the presence, the age, and the ability. But I was surprised that her Sawyer was so lucid, so wry: Atkins makes her intelligent, wary of the devil when he first appears, gives her soliloquies as steady exposition direct to the audience. I anticipated a Mother Sawyer wrapped up in her own anger, a fury who will bring the devil down on Edmonton. “Be not so furious”, says the Justice to her during their crucial conversation in Act IV. But Eileen Atkins was not being ‘furious’, but perceptive, witty, even low-key.

Atkins as Mother Sawyer

I can imagine that at her years Eileen Atkins has the right to set her own pace and tone. But her refusal to tear a cat made for a strange balance in the production, for a lot of the characters in the sub action are involved in the moral melodrama Ford wrote for them, with much pointing and shouting. Winifred, for instance: I don’t think I had ever really registered just what an extensive role that is in the play. I don’t think any performer could make sense of it all, Shvorne Marks seemed to me involved more in taking up some of the shouty slack left to hand by Atkins’ low-key Mother Sawyer and missed the occasional chance to suggest that Winifred can be aware of what clap-trap she talks.

Ian Bonar had the Frank Thorney role, and has been praised by the reviewers. I think neither he nor his director had really seen through to the unpleasant depths of Frank. He is played as young man in a frightful mess, and distressed about what he has stumbled in to. Frank Thorney deserves closer scrutiny than that: you can see him thinking about murder quite unprompted (as in his ominous protestation to Susan, "thou art so rare a goodness, as death would rather put itself to death, than murther thee"). He might also be suspected of a half-formed notion that once his father has settled his inheritance, he might find a way to off his old dad before any changes get made to the favourable settlement.

Doran’s direction is chiefly to blame. Unaccountably, with Tom the devil dog half-hidden in the reeds, the diabolic insight that (about Frank’s murder) ‘The mind’s about it now, / One touch from me soon sets the body forward’ was NOT followed up by any touch from the devil. This baulks at the clear requirements made by the text. One of my students objected reasonably enough that a touch was an inadequate representation of the devil taking control. But through the whole text the importance of the devil’s touch is apparent, as in these passages and stage directions:

1.      Sawyer  … first upon him I’ld be reveng’d.
Thou shalt: Do but name how.
Go, touch his life.
I cannot.
Hast thou not vow'd? Go, kill the slave…
Dog. …His Cattle
And Corn, I'll kill and mildew: but his life
(Until I take him, as I late found thee,
Cursing and swearing) I have no power to touch…

2.      .....
Dog. Now for an early mischief and a sudden:
The minde's about it now. One touch from me
Soon sets the body forward…
3.      Sawy.
Touch her.
Radcliffe. Oh my Ribs are made of a paynd Hose, and they break.
4.      SD: dog rubs him
5.      SD As they whisper, enter at one end o'th' Stage Old Carter and Katharine, Dog at th' other, pawing softly at Frank.

Doran needs to read the text he’s directing a bit more closely. Sawyer makes the explicit pact with the devil, Frank’s pact is implicit, but he is weak and wicked enough to allow the devil to prompt his evil. Look how his words to Susan, in rising anger ‘So, I shall have more trouble. Thank you for that’ are made by the touch of the dog into a partial acknowledgement of the devil’s prompting, ‘Thank you for that. Then I’ll ease all at once’:

Speech and SD in the 17th century text

Similarly I think there’s warrant for bringing the devil back into our view at the end of Act IV, for Frank’s closing couplet:

I have served thee, and my wages now are paid,
Yet my worst punishment shall, I hope, be stayed.

Who is Frank talking to, alone here? Obviously, the departing Old Carter, but it could be to the devil he can’t quite see, but who is there (or at least, would be there if an attentive director brought him into sight). The 17th century text was urgently instructive about how we give the devil access to us, if we blaspheme, or have evil thoughts.

Did Doran conceive that the play would be more acceptable to the audience at The Swan if he denied the devil his ‘touch’ on Frank? There may be some reason to suspect that he ducked out of potentially difficult moments. I cannot conceive for a moment why Faye Castelow as the wretched Susan, brought in by her father as a corpse in a coffin, did not, as the text requires, open her eye to glare accusingly at her murderer, Frank, who cries out: 'For pities sake, remove her: see, she stares with one broad open eye still in my face.' Did he not understand it? Did he blench at it? Either explanation is unsatisfactory. Elizabeth Sawyer, as the play mentions in passing, was one-eyed. The moment passes from the evil supernatural of Mother Sawyer, to the dead Susan, now operating in the realm of the good supernatural, like a corpse bleeding afresh in the presence of the murderer. Interestingly, Liz Crowther as the mad Anne Radcliffe did in extremis, see the devil, and that was very effective.

My students were most bemused by the end, unable to believe the level of forgiveness extended to Frank by Old Carter and the other villagers. Once again, I had to feel that Eileen Atkins’ Mother Sawyer, going more or less quietly to her fate, was partly to blame. There wasn’t a strong enough contrast established between her partial repentance (but actually it is quite clear admission of insufficient contrition when she says she wishes she still had Tom to help her) and Frank’s lengthy words before his exit to the gallows. The dramatists overreached, and thought they could finesse this contrast, and perhaps it did work for the audience in 1621, ever willing to hear penitent sinners. For us, it’s just another display of Frank’s glib way with words. The more sincere he tries to sound, the worse he sounds (at least to us).

The villagers were all rather clean looking. Come on now, Old Banks is under demonic compulsion to kiss his cow’s backside every ten times an hour. Can’t he be a bit a bit mucky-faced as a result? The morris dance was superb: an adequate sort of dance was going on until Tom and devil dog gets hold of Old Sawgut’s fiddle, and plays, and then a frenzy descends on all participants and witnesses to the dance. Cuddy Bank's hobby horse was a horse's skull, as in the witchcraft art of Oostsanen or others up to Jan Svankmajer.

Suitably unchristian looking morris men.

 Dafydd Llyr Thomas could have been tubbier still as Cuddy Banks, the role Rowley wrote for himself. The scene where Tom assumes the shape of Kate Carter to lure Cuddy into a pond was surprisingly effective. I think the actress must have filled her voluminous skirts with a mist of dry ice, she floated all the way across the apron stage on wreathes of smoke. The final expository dialogue between Cuddy and Tom was rather wearing. I don’t think it has to be, but that Jay Simpson was coasting on the strength of how super he looks, and Daffyd Llyr Thomas was still too much in role as Cuddy. Both characters are slightly out of their usual parts here, the dog oddly inclined to reveal, Cuddy more intelligent than usual. I think they could have done that dialogue with less performance, and greater lucidity and speed.

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