Theatre preview - Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

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A new play currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is inspired by one of the last major witch trials to take place in England. Yvette Huddleston reports.

“There were different waves of witch-hunting in this country and in one of them hundreds of thousands of women were tried and killed, so it is quite a significant part of our history,” says Amanda Bellamy who takes the title role in Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this week.

Playwright and BAFTA-winning screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz has taken as inspiration for her play one of the last major witch trials in England when in 1712 in a small Hertfordshire village, charges were brought against 70-year-old Jane Wenham. Typical of many who were accused of witchcraft, Wenham was poor, uneducated and reputed to be a wise-woman while the case against her seems to have been founded on rumour and hearsay rather than any actual evidence of wrong-doing.

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“While looking at that village and that time in which this woman was accused and successfully taken to trial, the play brings in so many connections to what is still happening to women today,” says Bellamy. “Even now in our society and other societies around the world there is plenty of oppression and demonisation of women, suspicion about women’s sexuality and judgments made about women who don’t make the conventional choices or fit the conventional mould.”

There is still a desire to find and create witches while petty grievances can become major feuds – it happens on Twitter every day – and these are the themes, along with religious intolerance and zealotry that the play explores. All of which have profound resonance with our modern world.

A co-production between Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre in association with Eastern Angles, the production received its premiere in Watford last month and over the past weeks has been touring East Anglia in small community venues. “We have been performing in some areas where there were pioneering people who fought against witch-hunting at that time,” says Bellamy. “These were villages that were at the centre of it and in those communities we were getting a very intense atmosphere.”

Bellamy was brought in to the ensemble cast at short notice after another actor had to drop out and she is delighted to be involved, especially in such a challenging and meaty role. “There are so few good parts for older women, so what a gift to be offered such an interesting part in a play full of well-written women’s roles,” she says. “I had about an hour to make up my mind to take it or not, but there wasn’t much of a decision to make – Rebecca Lenkiewcz is such an excellent playwright and Ria Parry is an exciting young director. I couldn’t say no.”

And Lenkiewicz, an actor turned playwright, certainly knows how to create good parts for women – her plays include Soho: A Tale of Table Dancers, loosely based on her own very brief experience of table dancing, The Night Season, focussing on the lives of three sisters in rural Ireland and Her Naked Skin about the Suffragette movement. She also co-wrote with Pawel Pawlikowski the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film Ida about a nun in 1960s Poland.

Although the central subject of her latest play is serious and challenging, there is according to Bellamy also plenty of warmth and humour.

“It is such a rounded, beautifully written piece and the characters are so well drawn – there is a whole cross section of the village community,” she says. “It is also very poetic and covers a variety of female experience very generously. Audiences are loving it. When we get a chance to talk to them afterwards, they have so much to say about it – it is really complex writing that provokes thought and discussion.”

n Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until October 24. For tickets call the box office on 0113 213 7700 or visit www.wyp.org.uk On October 23 there is a panel event – Witch-hunts: Now and Then at 6pm, tickets £3.

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