Amy Blair, Christopher Birks, Dan Coleman, Dan Nicholson, Dawn State, Edinburgh Fringe, Gareth Jandrell, History, Pleasance Courtyard, The Pendle Witches, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, Theatre Review, Witchcraft
Dawn State was a big noise at last year’s Fringe, with their two-man adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King collecting at least four stars wherever it was reviewed. Tychy, however, was politely sceptical, noting that the play was “so epic that the action on stage somehow feels just as cramped and frantic as that of a solo show.” This year’s performance from Dawn State, “The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster,” which is playing in the Pleasance Courtyard, has been once again received appreciatively by reviewers. And once again Tychy is volunteering to manhandle the play a little, if only in a spirit of critical experimentation. But this year, the limitations of Dawn State’s modus operandi seem to be easier for me to locate.
This play, which is written by Gareth Jandrell, has as its subject and source the 1612 Pendle witch trials and The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, which was published in 1613 by the clerk to the court Thomas Potts. Although everything went as usual for the accused (ten of them were hanged), witches were by this point no longer exterminated with quite the same traditional abandon. Torture was not used and the trial was overshadowed by doubts about the safety of a previous prominent witchcraft conviction.
Dawn State has three actors this time and they play an investigating magistrate, Nowell (Dan Nicholson); the clerk Potts (Christopher Birks); and a squirmy nine-year-old girl named Jennet Device (Amy Blair) who has turned King’s evidence against her family. The cast also put a small crowd, albeit not quite Crucible sized, of the accused and their accusers on stage. Stuffing so many characters into so few actors unexpectedly replicates the familiar frustrations of a one-man show, with the constant costume changes and the actors always hopping back and forth on the spot.
Dawn State nevertheless identify their play’s intrinsic handicaps as opportunities and they are even relaxed enough to joke about them. The play begins with the magistrate, the clerk, and Jennet now timeworn and on the road, retelling their story to successive seventeenth-century audiences. We, the audience, are reassigned the role of a seventeenth-century audience, who are attending some kind of seventeenth-century Fringe. These characters are henceforth the cast of their own story, playing themselves within their own play. And whenever there is a surplus of parts, the magistrate or the clerk ducks out of his own original character, to be replaced with a name plate on a stick.
If this was a real play, it would have been performed several years after the premieres of Othello and King Lear. There is a pleasant tension between the crude superstition which is smeared all over the lawmen’s play and their Shakespearean doublets. Moreover, the play gnaws the old Shakespearean bone about class. Nowell and Potts are flashily aspirational and nouveau-riche; the represented witches are, as a class, scroungers and a threat to social order.
The witches also appear to believe in their powers. There are stark tableaux in which a dainty little man of clay is brandished and spells chanted. As with “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Wonderful Discovery…” features some good spooky singing, ghostly echoes of Negro spirituals from faraway over the ocean. That clay man regales us with a troubling riddle. If the witches really believe that they are murdering their neighbours, are they, in fact, morally akin to murderers?
Unfortunately “The Wonderful Discovery…” cannot escape its essential inferiority to a real play, its ultimate status as just a laborious presentation. The whole thing aches like tired arms. Every moment of suspended disbelief within the play has to be prefaced and contained, so that it is always gesturing back to some other part of itself. For this reason, there is not enough time and space available to invest sufficient realism or nuance into the play’s characters. The witches are consequently so distant from us that they can never break out of their original legend.