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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Welkin
Lyttelton Theatre  Winter-Spring 2020

The Welkin is a feminist tract disguised as a courtroom drama pretending to be a folksy comedy.

Or perhaps it is the same elements in a different order. In any case, Lucy Kirkwood's ambitious new drama tries to cover a lot of ground and, remarkably, is much more successful than not. It says what it wants to say and holds your attention and involvement through just-under-three-hours.

In rural eighteenth-century England a woman has been convicted of murder, but she claims to be pregnant. If she isn't, she'll be executed; if she is, she'll be transported. The male judge and jury turn her over to an all-female jury who, presumably through their instinctive sense of such things, will decide if she is with child.

Most of the women want to see her hang, but one, the village midwife, argues for serious consideration of her case. And instantly we are deep in the territory of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men and every jury room drama since.

(Kirkwood is obviously also familiar with Susan Glaspell's 1916 Trifles, in which a group of women at a murder scene see, interpret and react to clues that men completely miss.)

But just as she commits to all the conventions of the jury room genre – we know that the midwife will win others over to her side one by one, the most ardent arguer against the woman will have some secret personal motive, and so on – Lucy Kirkwood subverts them.

The midwife turns out to have personal motives of her own, the murderess is unrepentant and unsympathetic, and the women are not particularly more wise or insightful than men would be.

Indeed, one of the playwright's major points is that even the boldest and most independent among them live completely within a patriarchal order, and are eager to turn, and defer, to a male doctor for the decision they were meant to make.

Along the way there are passing insights, both serious and comic, into these women's lives, their attitudes toward sex and motherhood (in a world in which infants were more likely to die than survive), their fantasies and accommodations with reality.

The murderer herself is almost incidental to all this, for most of the play just the McGuffin others are arguing about, and apart from not allowing her to become a sympathetic cliché, Ria Zmitrowicz has little to do in the first part of the evening.

It is only in the second half that the reality of her situation seems to sink in for the character, and Zmitrowicz successfully shows her fear breaking through the tough shell she had created.

The play really belongs to Maxine Peake as the midwife, at first seemingly just the sole voice of reason in the room, then driven to ever-increasing passion in an argument eventually revealed as more emotional than we thought, and finally forced to an extreme personal commitment. There is strong counterbalance from Haydn Gwynne and Cecelia Noble as her chief opponents.

James Macdonald's direction keeps us following the play's twists and reversals, but doesn't fully disguise its length and talkiness, nor can he keep most of the other women from receding into undifferentiated background figures.

The power of the play lies in the many ideas and insights it raises and generally does justice to, in the constant setting up and then subversion of our expectations from plot and characters, and in the Shavian way it makes debate theatrically alive and engrossing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Welkin - National Theatre 2020
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