THE FIRST WITCHFINDER, NOT WITHOUT LESSONS FOR TODAY
This is remarkable, Joanna Carrick’s best and deepest play yet, following her acclaimed Reformation trilogy. In its small Avenue theatre it is flawlessly staged and performed, a window into a past age and a lesson for all others about fanaticism and the terrible human need for human targets. It seems simple: a broomstick and baskets , a workmanlike stack of wooden furniture under a guttering candelabra, daylight filtering through diamond panes, old Suffolk. A bonneted young woman cradles something fondly, then with a sad shake reveals it as an empty shawl.
It was a sister’s baby she cared for , and Susan resists the courtship of the young farmer Richard Edwards, fearing the griefs of motherhood. Her half-brother Matthew wanders through, a nerdy, stammering, anxiously pious teenager. Soon Susan and Richard are wed, joyfully laying out the furniture, making a home, having a baby. And Matthew is there again, a year or so older, flinching from the living child as evidence of carnality, and of womankind as “a way for the devil to get into a man’s soul”. The couple laugh at him a little, and side- references are made to local jealousies and resentments among the cottagers of Mistley.
Thus , deftly and compellingly, Joanna Carrick’s play lays out its tragic shape: a likeable early 1640s farming couple, devout but sensible, and a fanatical youth gradually growing in Puritan confidence : the Matthew Hopkins who will become Witchfinder General. It’s a remote community and fragile one, infant mortality inexplicably high , ruin beckoning if cattle fall. In Cromwellian England, easy to suspect the Devil at work, tempting make yourself important as a “purifier” of the land and lay the blame on old women whose mutterings might be curses, whose pet animals ‘familiars’.
In a tense, beautifully staged two hours we live alongside Susan and Richard as they grieve for their first baby, then others, praying beside an empty cradle with wrenching power. Carrick, after her Reformation plays, has the advantage that she can, as it were, speak fluent Puritan: the religious and domestic language of the time feels natural, everyday, in the dialogue (more, indeed, than in the RSC’s recent Hamnet). Their affectionate arguments and shared griefs have powerful reality: Christopher Ashman’s manly Richard is likeable, solidly humorous and decent, and Nadia Jackson’s Susan, in a live stage debut, is simply astonishing in her gravity and simple-hearted sensitivity.
The pair movingly grow and develop through the play, edging from pragmatism and goodwill through repeated griefs into guilt (their first child was conceived before marriage) . A terrible ability grows in them slowly, to believe what the real devil, Matthew Hopkins, drips into them. Though wonderfully they start at one point to laugh at his announcement that the local witch’s pets are devils, airy spirits made of “condensed and thickened air” given that they have names like the dog Vinegar Tom . And “Colin”. It is also subtly conveyed that while they fell in with Hopkins and gave evidence, others in the Mistley community did not.
Vincent Moisy as the Witchfinder is subtle too: a geeky teenager, then an unwilling tavern host repelled by the earthiness of those around him (‘drunkards and hedge-breakers”). Increasingly he is confident in repeating and enlarging the pieties fed to him by Cromwellian “Lecturers”. It is also chilling to be reminded how young he was: Hopkins’ reign of terror ran between his 25th year and his death at 27.
As for the interrogation of Rei Mordue’s cowering Rebecca, the young girl forced to repeat evidence against her mother and admit that playing with a kitten while praying proves it’s a demon, you shudder at his Soviet tactics: “Watching her closely, depriving her of rest and food, has driven the truth out of her”.
The play’s strength is in being a simple four-hander, despite the sense of community, and the subtlety and humanity of the three main characters. When Susan asks “WIll they hang? All? and Matthew replies “They must!” we see him beyond hope, her not quite. Yet when after the hangings the more doubtful Richard wants to walk with her to their babies’ graves and see the blue cornflowers growing, Susan raves angrily at his wincing pity until humanity floods visibly, back into her with a terrible doubt. “I wanted the deaths to ease my heart, my rage, but I’m more angry now than I was then…” Her final line will knock you out. Silence . gasps.
A note: great drama grows from strong roots. Since 2019 Red Rose Chain has been exploring this darkest piece of local history: the three-year terror from 1640-1647 when more ordinary women were hanged for witchcraft than in the previous 160 years, despite the religious persecutions of the Reformation. Alongside Carrick’s researches in parish records, which fascinatingly discovered the close links between Matthew Hopkins and the Edwardses, early “victims” and witnesses to witchcraft, the group’s interest flowered. Its youth theatre created one play, its community group for people with disabilities another, and residents of HMP Warren Hill – in that grim cell isolation time and by communicating by letter – wrote two radio plays which were then performed by professionals and sent on CDs. Everyone did a lot of thinking about this play, and it shows.
box office redrosechain.com to 11 october