‘Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern’ at the Everyman Theatre
The latest work by Rebecca Lenkiewicz takes us on a journey back to the small village of Walkern in the 1700s. Decades may have passed since the time of the last true witch-hunts but the fear of the unknown is still very much alive among the villagers, especially in the heart of the grief-stricken and religiously zealous.
The play begins immediately after the hanging of a local woman, and the arrival of the impassioned rector, Samuel Crane (Andrew Melkin), who is on a one man mission to eradicate evil from the world. In Crane’s mind, however, this evil appears to take the form of a woman; in particular, the eccentric spinster Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy), who, to the audience, is nothing more than a harmless herbalist and wise woman.
The intended effect of Lenkiewicz’s play is manifest throughout the performance. A desire to highlight the dangerous partnership of prejudice and violence is central to the play, especially where it concerns unjust harm brought against those considered as existing outside of ‘normal’ society. However, this moralising tenet is impressed upon the audience repeatedly throughout the play, and at times it feels as though this is done at the cost of the overall fluidity of the performance. There are many powerful scenes, such as the treatment of Jane by the angry mob of villagers in the second act, which warn the modern audience against the dangers of crowd mentality – a decision which seems to knowingly address the problematic attitudes often shown towards migrants and other such groups of ‘outsiders’.
Overall, the cast provided an impressive performance, with each member bringing forth a strength and commitment of emotion so crucial to a tale like this. Especially impressive were the versatile performances of Rachel Sanders and Amanda Bellamy, both of whom demonstrated such potent depictions of female suffering. Despite a few fumbled lines and questionable accents, nothing could distract from the commanding message of Lenkiewicz’s writing, which felt perfectly at home in James Button’s incredibly simple yet flexible set design.