The basic storyline in The Welkin is one that could be summarised in a sentence or two. So why does it have a three-hour running time? It’s not as if it’s a musical with plenty of song and dance fillers to keep the audience smiling. The context of the story is set out in the opening scene – entirely without words – though eventually one ends up looking at the show’s programme in the interval for confirmation that the play is set in 1759 (well, I did anyway). Based on Act One Scene One alone, it could have been set at any point before domestic service stopped being commonplace.
Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) doesn’t so much stand in the dock but is subjected to a jury of women, each of whom were ordered to attend court to determine whether Sally is genuinely with child (and thus is eligible for a stay of execution for a serious crime against the person). It hardly takes a genius to work out that if she is pregnant, a ‘bump’ is not yet immediately evident, at least not without closer inspection. But to try to answer the question I started with, the play digresses from the jury’s official agenda.
Without the digressions, however, a play like this would otherwise be open to criticism that there are twelve jurors, of whom the audience gets to know very little, at least relative to the accused party. It may not be reasonable for the audience to remember the names and biographical details of each of the twelve as they are quickly introduced by way of being sworn into the jury. But as they are largely drawn from the local population, many of them are already acquainted with one another to some extent, with the almost inevitable result that the conversation will turn away from the task at hand. Perhaps it’s more than a little contrived, but as a theatrical device, it’s effective enough.
The second half is entirely given over to Scene Six (there is a brief Scene Seven in the script, but it appears to have been dispensed with in this production), where the women continue to deliberate, converse and even pray. Elizabeth Luke (Maxine Peake), a midwife, lectures the rest of the women at length. It’s not quite a feminist rant although she is frustrated that the others are happy to accept the result of an examination from a Dr Willis (Laurence Ubong Williams). It didn’t come across to me as the women favouring the opinion of a man over that of one of their own, but rather seeking the advice of a medical professional – and as Sally points out, “I can have a doctor? F—s sake, why did nobody say?”
Concentration is required with so much ‘talking heads’ going on, but interest is maintained by the sheer number of revelations that come rushing out: thus, I stop short of saying that sitting through the show is arduous labour. The play does well to portray the conventions of the time – Judith Brewer (Jenny Galloway) is subjected to bloodletting, for instance, and it seems to work for her. This is far from ‘twelve angry women’ – they are people with various dispositions – but the sounds of the braying crowd outside the court building is not too dissimilar from abusive language and death threats people receive today. That there are elements of behaviour in society that haven’t developed in the same way that medical knowledge has is a rather damning indictment.
The ladies’ frankness is often refreshing, and it is good to see so many women of different ages on stage. But it was difficult to hear certain lines – I missed a few punchlines from my vantage point which other sections of the audience chortled fairly heartily at. Added to that are the East Anglian voices. It wasn’t so much the accents that bothered me as the occasional term in the local dialect that I couldn’t make head nor tail of. But, overall, it’s an intriguing eye-opener into the lives of ordinary people of the era, a compelling contrast to the many plays set in the eighteenth-century featuring kings, dukes and bishops.
Review by Chris Omaweng
One life in the hands of 12 women.
Rural Suffolk, 1759. As the country waits for Halley’s comet, Sally Poppy is sentenced to hang for a heinous murder.
When she claims to be pregnant, a jury of 12 matrons are taken from their housework to decide whether she’s telling the truth, or simply trying to escape the noose.
With only midwife Lizzy Luke prepared to defend the girl, and a mob baying for blood outside, the matrons wrestle with their new authority, and the devil in their midst.
Find a cinema near you for the National Theatre Live broadcast of The Welkin on 21 May 2020
Hannah Rusted / US Sally Poppy – Natasha Cottriall
US Mary Middleton/Emma Jenkins/Sarah Hollis – Daneka Etchells
Judith Brewer – Jenny Galloway
Charlotte Cary – Haydn Gwynne
Mary Middleton – Zainab Hasan
Peg Carter / Lady Wax – Aysha Kala
Helen Ludlow – Wendy Kweh
Mr Coombes – Philip McGinley
US Judith Brewer/Charlotte Cary/Sarah Smith/Lady Wax – Jules Melvin
Emma Jenkins – Cecilia Noble
US Mr Coombes/Frederick Poppy/The Justice/Doctor Willis – Daniel Norford
Lizzy Luke – Maxine Peake
Kitty Givens – Dawn Sievewright
US Elizabeth Luke/Ann Lavender / Fight Captain – Rebecca Todd
Sarah Smith – June Watson
Frederick Poppy / The Justice / Doctor Willis – Laurence Ubong Williams
US Hannah Rusted/Peg Carter/Helen Ludlow/Kitty Givens – Shaofan Wilson
Ann Lavender – Hara Yannas
Sarah Hollis – Brigid Zengeni
Sally Poppy – Ria Zmitrowicz
Director – James Macdonald
Set and Costume Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer -Lee Curran
Sound Designer – Carolyn Downing
Movement – Imogen Knight
Fight Director – Rachel Bown-Williams of RC-ANNIE Ltd
Fight Director – Ruth Cooper-Brown of RC-ANNIE Ltd
Vocal Arranger and Rehearsal Music Director – Osnat Schmool
Company Voice Work – Simon Money
Dialect Coach – Michaela Kennen
Staff Director – Sara Joyce
a new play by Lucy Kirkwood
Running Time: appox. 2 hours and 50 mins, inc. interval