Sunday, 22 February 2009

Theatre Review: Sabbat by Richard Shannon

Sabbat by Richard Shannon
Performed at the Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, England

The theatre in the round is packed with people standing in the upper stalls. The square stage, divided into quadrants depicting earth, grass, stone, and wooden floors, has four ominous butchers’ hooks hanging overhead. At the edges of the stage area, just over the first rows, dried herbs and willow manikins hang.

Three women step forth and face each other across the stage, their voices joined in an ancient folk charm:

There came three angels out of the East,
One brought fire and two brought frost
Out fire and in frost,
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

To seal the charm, each woman crosses herself, revealing how the strands of Pagan folk magic had become so tightly interwoven with Catholic belief. In Jacobean England, both Catholics and presumed witches may be punished by death. The ambience is heightened by the fact that Dukes Theatre is located beside the Golden Lion Pub where the Pendle Witches reputedly were given their last drink before being marched to the gallows in August, 1612. They condemned would have marched up Moor Lane, right outside the theatre doors.

Richard Shannon’s atmospheric retelling of the dramatic events leading up to the Pendle Witch Trials is sensitive and well drawn although it does take liberties with history. As the play is limited to four actors, the story becomes truncated.

On the side of law and order, there is Roger Nowell, magistrate, and his wife Judith, heavily pregnant and tormented by nightmares that evil forces threaten her unborn child. Judith’s friend, recusant Catholic Alice Nutter provides her with herbal potions to soothe away her fears and aid her sleep. Roger Nowell wonders if the Widow Nutter is, in fact, working magical charms inside his house—does she have his wife under her spell? When Judith is alone in the house, teenaged beggar Jennet Preston comes to wheedle for bread, money, and whatever else she can lay her hands on, ominously suggesting that if Judith does not pay her to “bless” the baby in her womb, she will be sorry. And yet Jennet’s muttered charms appear almost identical to Alice Nutter’s fervent Catholic prayers.

Jennet, as she appears in the play, bears little resemblance to the historical Jennet Preston who was a married woman in her forties in 1612 and had no reputation as a cunning woman or dealer in charms. Instead, Richard Shannon’s Jennet is a wholly fictional creation combining aspects of Alizon, Jennet, and James Device, the historical grandchildren of Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, of Malkin Tower—the most notorious of the Pendle Witches. Shannon’s Jennet, brought to visceral life by young actor Amaka Okafor, appears naïve, vulnerable and delusional, careening down a course which will lead all the characters to tragedy.

The four actors are excellent in their roles, particularly Christine Mackie who plays Alice Nutter with a quiet and utterly convincing dignity, revealing a tragic heroine: a good, well-meaning woman who, caught up in a climate of hysteria and religious foment, is framed as a witch. While Mistress Nutter, a woman of property and member of the lower gentry, is revealed in great depth of character, Jennet and her family, all of them poor and needy, are shown as comtemptible victims of their own ignorance and envy of the upper classes. I only wish that Richard Shannon could have depicted the “real” witches of Malkin Tower with the same nuances and depth that he granted Alice Nutter.

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