Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Theatre Review: The Welkin (National Theatre)

The last time I saw Maxine Peake on film was in Thomas Clay's great Fanny Lye Deliver'd (2019), a properly startling 1650s Shropshire-set "Puritan Western" in which Peake played the title character: a wife and mother who undergoes all kinds of awakenings when two strangers appear at the family farm.

Now, back on stage in James Macdonald's production of Lucy Kirkwood's new play The Welkin at the NT, Peake fast-fowards exactly 100 years to the 18thC. Here Peake plays one Lizzy Luke, a midwife who, along with 11 other women from a Norfolk-Suffolk border community, is called on to form a "jury of matrons" to pass a judgement on the fate of a child-killer, Sally Poppy. The women's task isn't to determine Poppy's guilt or innocence - that's already been decided by a jury of men - but rather to make a judgement on whether the girl is, as she claims, pregnant: a condition that would save her from the hangman's noose.

Kirkwood continues to prove herself a versatile writer in terms of form and subject matter, and The Welkin - a period 12 Angry Women, if you will - is a play whose ambitions are pleasingly big. Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of Macdonald's production (boldly designed by Bunny Christie), the end results feel rigged, contrived, and a bit of a mess. The opening image - a "split stage" portrait of women's domestic toil - is sensational, and the production stays strong for most of its first half. It's grip slips, however, when  revelations start piling up; after one of these the play loses believability and never recovers, with moral issues and character nuance sacrificed to plot twists, not all of which make sense. (Included in the play-script, a final flourish that would have brought the proceedings together has sadly been snipped from the production.)

It doesn't help that Kirkwood's dialogue swings uneasily between juicy mock-Georgian rural diction, contemporary profanity and flagrant anachronism, with some psychobabble and "woke" statements designed to flatter a contemporary audience thrown into the mix. Laurence Ubong Williams appears as a doctor who genially informs the group that women's bodies represent "a history of disease." In a moment that might have popped out of some recent Twitter exchange, Philip McGinley's Mr. Coombes - there to oversee the women's deliberations - is lectured: "You're not here to speak; it's your turn to listen." A low point comes in a meant-to-be-moving interlude in which the women sing together - not a folk ballad that might have made some thematic and dramatic sense, but rather an iconic 1980s pop song. At such times I couldn't help thinking back to Charlotte Jones' excellent The Meeting, another female-centred "period" play but one which trusted the audience to find its way in the setting without heavy-handed contemporary signposts or pandering to current sensibilities.

Kirkwood's concern with how the justice system fails women certainly gives The Welkin some bite. Yet, despite the research evidently undertaken, there's a lack of sympathetic imagination at work in certain areas, not least the treatment of the crime itself, perpetrated as it is against the child of an upper-class family who are - no surprises here - vicious exploiters and abusers of the poor.

What keeps the evening going through the missteps is that this "jury of matrons" is comprised of a company of great actresses. While Ria Zmitrowicz overdoes it as the accused, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne (sadly stuck with the worst of the "reveals") provide texture and humour in the (long) deliberation scenes. Best of all is Cecilia Noble who contributes another of her cherishable characterisations as the hardliner who sucks up to Gwynne's out-of-towner and identifies "a moral slippage in this country I find most troubling." The cast make the evening worthwhile, but it's disappointing that a play that promises to be an insightful exploration of the politics of women's work and women's bodies ends up as a lurid maternal melodrama.

The Welkin is booking until the 23rd May, and screens in cinemas as an NT Live on 21st May. Further information here

Images: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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