Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern
It was in 1712, in the small village of Walkern, Hertfordshire, a woman in her seventies was accused of being a witch: her name was Jane Wenham.
Jane had been married twice already, however both her husbands had died leaving Jane to endure a life of crippling poverty in a place where many around her suspected she had had a supernatural hand in their deaths. It was unsurprising then, despite decades having passed since the initial trauma of the witch hunts, that accusations of witchcraft swiftly followed.
The tale of Jane Wenham inevitably varies in its details with each telling; however some things do not change. At its core, it is a story of strength in the face of overwhelming adversity and the trials that are faced when one has been identified as “the other” in a community. This is something that still, over three hundred years later, is resonant in today’s society. With the government’s current fixation on immigration and the poor ever present in our media outlets, as well as the issue of sexism still being as relevant today as it has always been, it is strangely cathartic to see the release of a play that deals with ideas of witch-hunts. When I spoke with the play’s author, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, earlier today she shared her thoughts on why this play, set in the 18th Century, is so relevant to a 21st Century audience.
Lenkiewicz revealed that, although the production of the play had not been the result of her “burning to write” the story, when Out of Joint – along with the University of Hertfordshire – approached her, it was like “a coming together.” It seems that this coming together was some kind of providence as, throughout our conversation, it becomes clear that Lenkiewicz’s passions and frustrations with society are perfectly matched with the themes explored throughout this story. One such matter interrogated in the play is the role of men throughout the witch trials – and Jane’s own persecution – as accusers, judges and eventually executioners of those charged with witchcraft.
“I have always been fascinated by that notion of men sort of being terrified by female power,” Lenkiewicz explained, “[Which] I think resonates in the story of the witch hunts. It’s all about fear really, and why is it the women that are feared?” It seems that even today this terror still exists: for example through the continued discrepancy of pay between men and women in the workplace. However, there still seems to be no definitive answer as to where this fear comes from. Lenkiewicz muses that: “OK, the man is physically stronger, but why capitalise on that? Especially in the witch hunts, it was so grim; the torture, the accusations, and on such petty grounds.” I ask if she believes that women can turn this terror around to their advantage, she responds sagely that “Where there is fear there is vulnerability. If someone is scared then, in a way, they are powerless.”
Another aspect that Lenkiewicz believes a modern audience will relate to is the fear of difference which exists within the play. Parallels will undoubtedly be drawn between the fear of the unknown felt during the witch hunts and the hostility to the ‘other’ that has characterised anti-immigration sentiment of late: “We should be helping anyone in dire need,” says Lenkiewicz, “The fear of, what David Cameron calls, ‘The Swarm’ is so ridiculous and unfounded. The world has always been a moving place, we are all essentially refugees, and we have all come from somewhere else […] I think we believe that we’re so progressive nowadays but we’re not.”
This fear of difference also manifests itself in the way that modern society still chooses to ostracise those that do not fit into the so called ‘normal’ boxes that define family, success and happiness. This is something that, during the era of active witch-hunting, would have been enough to see you charged and punished. And really, the play asks, what is so different in how we treat those that do not fit into those boxes today? As Lenkiewicz observes, “When someone can’t quite function, why are they not embraced? That’s what society to me should be. It’s not only the superficial – but, as a society, I think we’ve got it wrong.”
It’s a terrifying moment when you read, or watch, a product of a by-gone era and realise the dark underbelly presented to you is the same oily shade now as it was then. The matter seems ubiquitous to Lenkiewicz, referring to the struggle to do right, she says: “It’s always been there and I don’t think it will ever go away.” For Lenkiewicz it is a case of doing her best through her writing: “As a playwright, all you can do is write a play about injustice, you know, and hope it gets out there.”
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is on at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre Tue 27 October to Sat 31 October 2015