Caroline Phillips reviews The Welkin, Lucy Kirkwood’s tale of hangings and housework in 18th century England
The opening scene of The Welkin, a world premiere by Lucy Kirkwood, is visually compelling. The audience is presented with what could almost be a bank of enormous television screens inside a broadcasting studio. But inside each frame, a live woman is doing housework: changing nappies, beating carpets. It’s not the only thing that makes this such an aesthetically pleasing play (with design by Bunny Christie). The sober and muted palette — of olive, fawns, creams – gives the feeling of walking into a Vermeer or 18th century Dutch painting, although the play takes place in East Anglia.
The year is 1759 and Sally Poppy (played wonderfully and with defensive truculence by Ria Zmitrowicz) has been convicted (with her lover) of murdering an 11-year old girl. We watch the ‘jury of matrons’ — 12 women empanelled on a jury; a legal procedure that happened from medieval times until the 19th century — deliberate before delivering a verdict on another woman. The matrons have to ascertain if Sally is telling the truth when she claims to be pregnant. If she is, instead of being hung, she’ll be transported to the colonies.
The midwife, Elizabeth Luke (Maxine Peake, who inhabits her character with passion and presence) delivered Sally, and wants to save her. Spoiler alert – actually, I won’t tell you. Just know that it’s a good twist in the story line. Meanwhile, other matrons want Sally to perish, baby and all.
The play, directed by James Macdonald, takes place in one room, which conveys a sense of entrapment as the matrons make their decision over the course of nearly three hours. There’s an uncomfortable feeling each time they close the imaginary windows on stage that we, the audience, may be the public that’s heard baying for Sally’s death. As the women’s difficulties in deciding Sally’s fate heat up, there’s an almost magical, symbolic and pungent explosion of a chimney in the middle of the play. Meanwhile, rumours, superstitions, witches, demons and angels hover among them.
The word ‘welkin’ comes from an Old English word, ‘wolcen’, meaning cloud or vault of the sky. According to legend, angels gaze down onto earth, overlooking women being punished for their original sin with the pain of childbirth. And in this play, the angels watch over women, the matrons in this nearly all-female cast, undergoing the pain of being milked — Sally to see if she’s pregnant — and suffering an examination with a speculum that looks more suited to delivering calves. More, it seems, is known about Halley’s Comet – which appears in the sky that night – than about women’s bodies.
At root, the play is about feminist politics and patriarchal supremacy (with an excellent introduction in the programme by Helena Kennedy QC about how women are failed by laws developed by men). It’s the male doctor’s decision that the matrons really want. So although the lines are often witty — although sometimes the thick regional accents are indecipherable — the play has profound undertones.
The evening I went, the role of Emma Jenkins was well played by her understudy, Daneka Etchells, who earned a special round of applause from the company. My 22 year-old daughter loved The Welkin, and I enjoyed it, which seemed to be the general audience take. The theatre was packed, and I didn’t see anyone leave. There was a line in the play about choosing your husband for his big head, being as good a way as any to make such a decision. The two gay guys in the row in front of me looked at one another meaningfully. And then continued watching, rapt.
The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood is at the Lyttelton Theatre until June 2020, and will be broadcast in cinemas as part of National Theatre live on 21 May 2020. Book via nationaltheatre.org.uk