The Theatreguide.London Review
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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