The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Winter-Spring 2020
The Welkin is a
feminist tract disguised as a courtroom drama pretending to be a
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.
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
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
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 an 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
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.
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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