Bertie Harrison-Broninski and Felix Morrison’s adaptation of the 1621 Jacobean play The Witch of Edmonton is a truly inspired and captivating piece about the reclamation of the female voice, and the powerful connection between language and agency. In the original text, the character of the witch was treated extremely unsympathetically, but this production allows her to tell the story from her perspective, and without being overshadowed by the two subplots surrounding the male characters in the original play. Styled as a virtual ghost tour in North London’s Enfield, the writer-directors deftly combine scenes from the original script, poetry by Sylvia Plath, and elements of Brechtian theatre to tell a truly compelling and feminist story of the eponymous witch, who was based off a real person, Elizabeth Sawyer.
As I walked into the Burton Taylor Studio, I was instantly transported to another world – coloured ribbons hung from a wooden pentagram on the ceiling and a spinning wheel was set in the corner. The set was warmly lit while lilting music (brilliantly composed and performed by Toby Stanford) played in the background. It was clear from the start that great attention to detail was put into the production, and I can confidently say I have never seen a BT production quite as polished as this. The transitions were utterly seamless (a rare feat in a venue like this), and the space was used to its full potential with several striking visuals that simply took my breath away. The lighting choices and original soundtrack were nothing short of impeccable, and the use of a projector for the filmed ‘tour guide’ interludes was extremely effective. Especially commendable were the choices in costume (designed by Eve James), which made the whole experience very immersive; all of the actors were resplendent in period clothing, with the striking exception of the Dog, who was half-naked in gold stripper shorts and BDSM gear, complete with a leather hood shaped like a dog’s head. This might have seemed like an odd choice, but worked extremely well for the production as a nod to the ideas of sin and temptation from the devil in the text.
All this, of course, needed to be supported by a very strong cast – and it was. Lowri Spear as the Witch gave an impressively versatile and dynamic performance, ranging from a menacing woman hell-bent on revenge and fighting for agency, to that of a falsely accused prisoner. Her eyes glittered with emotion and quiet fury as Henry Goodcole, played with wonderfully sanctimonious condescension by Emilka Cieslak, refused to listen to her. Sam Gledhill fully embodied the character of a talking Dog, and his animalistic twitching, sniffing, and growling was not only extremely convincing, but also truly terrifying at points. Olly Towarek delivered a robust performance as the Justice, and Francesca Burt played the enigmatic Ann Carter with a lightness that was almost ethereal.
Some of the cast also played smaller roles extremely effectively; a particular highlight was Gledhill as an imposing prison guard in the interrogation scenes between the Witch and Goodcole. However, the standout performance for me was that of Tasha Saunders, who played the bumbling Cuddy Banks with great zeal, combining a lively range of facial expressions with absolutely spot-on comic timing. The funniest parts of the play by far were the interactions between him and the Dog; at several points, Cuddy jumps in fright when the Dog barks at him, briefly departing from the archaic language of the text to mutter “oh f*ck!” to great amusement from the audience. Saunders also doubled as a charismatic and enthusiastic tour guide in the filmed interludes, and the contrast in character was so great that I could hardly believe they were played by the same person. The only criticism I would have regarding the acting is that all of the cast needed to project a little more; some of the lines were garbled or delivered so quietly that even I, sitting in the front row, strained to hear them!
Broninski and Morrison’s The Witch of Edmonton does a great job of adapting the original text, highlighting important themes and stories that make it extremely relevant for the modern day. Bringing together a fantastic script and superb direction with a strong, multi-roling cast and formidable production team, this play is an absolute must-see for this week.