Friday, November 14, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton at the RSC

I'm just back from a ridiculously short but wonderful mid-semester trip to England to see a couple of plays, visit the WWI centenary installation at the Tower of London, and generally recharge my early modernist batteries. The English Renaissance seems to be enjoying a theatrical Renaissance right now, and it's encouraging to see so much material outside the Shakespeare canon being staged and attracting audiences. It goes without saying that I love me some Big Willie Shakes, but there's a wealth of contemporary plays available beyond the better-known examples like The Duchess of Malfi, Doctor Faustus, etc., and it's great to see them getting some love. I'm currently writing a dissertation chapter about petty treason (i.e. wives who murder their husbands), so I made sure to catch the RSC's production of Arden of Faversham at the Swan in Stratford this summer, and was excited to see Rowley, Dekker, Ford, "& c."'s genre-bending 1621 play, The Witch of Edmonton scheduled for their fall season. Since The Witch figures in a later chapter (and is rarely staged), I was not about to miss it; Eileen Atkins in the title role sealed the deal.

I love seeing plays at the Swan because it's such an intimate venue; with only 450 seats, none of them could be called even remotely "bad." Since I had the wit to book our tickets back in August, we had front-row seats within yards of the actors: a particular privilege in this instance because Atkins is such a subtle performer. I've been a huge fan for ages, and I honestly don't know where to start in praising her performance. As is true of all my favorite actors, the word that best describes Atkins' approach is intelligent: nuanced, thoughtful, multi-faceted, saying as much with her facial expressions, 
and with what she leaves out, as with her remarkable voice. As Mother Elizabeth Sawyer, an old woman accused of witchcraft because she is "Poor, deformed, and ignorant, / And like a bow buckled and bent together,” Atkins communicates both the pathos and the anger of an outcast so tired of being “a common sink / For all the filth and rubbish of men’s tongues” that she finally does make a deal with the devil: "'Tis all one to be a witch as to be counted one." 

Throughout the play, Atkins' Mother Sawyer manages to evoke our sympathy without pandering to the mawkish sentimentality too often associated with "sensitive" modern attitudes towards the elderly, which frequently reads as more infantilizing and/or dismissive than respectful. (If anyone had called my grandmother - who lived through two world wars, years of rationing, air raids, and 
post-war austerity, and raised three children on a Birmingham council estate - "cute" they'd have been pulling back stumps.) Atkins achieves this balance in large part through her dry, incisive commentary on the hypocritical society that ostracizes and abuses her. In answer to her own rhetorical question, "A witch! Who is not?" she offers numerous examples of people who "[act] sin in fouler shapes that can be wrought" by "any lean old beldam" like herself, including courtesans, "city-witches who can turn / Their husband's wares, whole standing shops of wares, / To sumptuous tables, gardens of stolen sin; / In one year wasting what scarce twenty win," scolding wives, and "The man of law / Whose honeyed hopes the credulous client draw—/ As bees by tinkling basins — to swarm to him / From his own hive to work the wax in his."

These scathing observations hit their mark within the play and with the Swan's audience as well, many of whom were nodding during this speech (worth reading in its entirety; you can find the full text of the play here). This series of questions places "an old woman, / Ill-favoured grown with years" in a similar position to that lamented by Shakespeare's Shylock, who asks, "Hath not a Jew eyes?... If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that." And while Mother Sawyer's speech is ultimately as bootless as Shylock's (she hangs, he is forced to renounce his faith; it's an open question which fate is worse) the fact that she makes it is significant, and keeps her from becoming either a cartoon villain or a mere caricature of a helpless old woman.

The Witch of Edmonton is an odd play, not least because its title character doesn't appear until about thirty minutes into the action, and then occupies only one of three loosely connected plots, which share a demonic dog as their common denominator. In addition to the witchcraft plot, we have Frank Thorney, a young man who has impregnated and married Winnifride, a serving girl fresh from a concurrent, clandestine affair with the local nobleman who employs them both. Knowing his father will never approve of Winnifride, Frank bigamously contracts himself to Susan Carter in hopes of securing his inheritance and her dowry, with which he plans to abscond. We also have Cuddy Banks, a boorish rustic in love with Susan's sister, who provides comic relief and some unexpected pathos.

Mother Sawyer's relationship with "Tom," the canine familiar who answers her plea that "some power, good or bad, / Instruct me which way I might be revenged," is simultaneously disturbing, frightening, and strangely sweet. It's unsurprising that such a friendless person would welcome any companion (even one played as...let's say "less-than-cuddly" by Jay Simpson), and his ability to wreak vengeance on her abusers only sweetens the pot. Sawyer's reaction to Tom's betrayal and abandonment of her in the final act - it is axiomatic that the devil always deals double - is heartbreaking, and it's a testament to the fine acting throughout this production that we believe this lonely woman sees a man wearing black body paint, horns, and a huge codpiece as a beloved canine companion, beyond his power to smite her enemies.

Tom also interacts directly with the play's fool, Cuddy Banks (Daffyd Llyr Thomas). The son of Mother Sawyer's chief antagonist, Cuddy is primarily interested in morris dancing - in the coveted role of hobbyhorse - and one of the most amusing things about this play is the hard time morris dancers were already getting in 1621. When the foppish gallant Warbeck is invited to "grace the nimble-footed youth of Edmonton / That are so kind to call us up today," he replies that “Absurdity's in my opinion ever the best dancer in a morris,” while his companion Somerton "could rather sleep than see 'em." The audience at the performance we attended met the spectacle of six be-ribboned-and-belled men jumping around with sticks (Cuddy brandishing an articulated horse skull on the end of his) with the usual mixture of bemusement and utter confusion, especially when Tom seized the fiddle and the entire company broke into what I can only describe as a "demonic border morris," proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A source of both comedy and tension is Cuddy's boneheaded persistence in addressing the demonic Tom as if he were an ordinary "puppison," despite giveaways like the latter's ability to vanish, talk in complete sentences, and perform acts of malevolent mischief beyond the capacity of "honest" dogs who "swim, fetch, and carry." The specter of the malign Other lurking inside the familiar and the domestic is a pervasive and frightening idea in the early modern period, and 
The Witch of Edmonton exploits it brilliantly. Mother Sawyer wants an ally she can trust and rely on, so the devil answers her plea in the (proverbially loyal) shape of a dog. For most of the play, Cuddy Banks fails to recognize the furry acquaintance whose ears he scratches as an agent of evil whose "delights" are "to kill innocent children, to kill harmless cattle, to 'stroy corn and fruit, etc." and who provokes the play's feckless, bigamous Frank Thorney (played with impressive sensitivity by Ian Bonar, who brings depth and humanity to an unsympathetic character) to murder his second wife in cold blood merely by brushing against him.

On the page, The Witch of Edmonton's strange admixture of English country life, the tensions between the early modern ideal of companionate marriage, filial duty, and the commodification of love and matrimony exemplified by the bigamy plot, and contemporary anxieties about witchcraft and diabolical interference in ordinary daily activities can seem like a bit of a generic mess. This is often put down to the play's collaborative origins, with the three interlocking plots usually attributed to Dekker (Mother Sawyer), Ford (Frank Thorney), Rowley (Cuddy Banks and the rustics), respectively. But on the stage - at least in Gregory Doran's current RSC production - the three strands are woven together by a skilled director and a talented cast to form something (to quote another playwright) that is, if not exactly of great constancy, howsoever strange and admirable.

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