I have never seen Caryl Churchill’s 1976 feminist play “Vinegar Tom” performed before, and so this was an experience to bag. The production which is presently playing at C Nova is the work of Warwick University Drama Society, who, perhaps not by coincidence, also come from the same university where the feminist Germaine Greer holds a professorial chair. “Vinegar Tom” reflects the impact of Greer’s 1970 bestseller The Female Eunuch and the Equal Pay Act of the same year.
I had expected “Vinegar Tom” to be pointed and sloganistic, but much of the play is given over to a knowledgeable account of seventeenth-century witchcraft. The set-up is quite conventional, but it depicts the same circumstances which thousands of women had shared all over Western Europe. Spinsters and widows, women who did not fit in smoothly to the demanding world of subsistence agriculture, were singled out by superstition and punished for the dissent which they embodied. The women of this play are restless and unsatisfied; the society in which they find themselves is not made for them and it does not please them.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) portrayed a society so paranoid that the fear of witches would turn it inside out. “Vinegar Tom” instead comes close to imagining witchcraft as a means to power for enterprising women. Alice (Charlotte Clitherow) leaves her neighbour Jack (Alex Welsh) gibbering with penis panic, whilst the “canny” Ellen (Rebecca Ward) can heal and empower desperate women.
The cast look young and they are made to seem younger by the musical antics which enliven Churchill’s play. Take out the lines about sore cunts, and “Vinegar Tom” at times rocks like a high-school musical. Yet this production is only following the script, and perhaps Churchill did not have sufficient confidence in her story and characters. The musical interludes often seem like her attempt to wriggle out of a play. Or else a rhythm and blues band really has travelled back in time and they are discreetly jamming behind hay bales or around the back of Jack’s barn whilst the drama unfolds.
It is nonetheless a privilege to see “Vinegar Tom,” and the play brings it home to me that I have never lived through a period of history when feminism was as idealistic and creative as this. Compare today’s sour griping about Page 3 girls, or the latest forty minute Twitter anguish, with Churchill’s furious intolerance of any compromise to female autonomy. If only we could relax, content in the knowledge that Churchill and her witches were finally on the right side of history.