The Witch of Edmonton (RSC) @ Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 2014His Contemporaries

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Directed by Gregory Doran for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, 19 November 2014

The Witch of Edmonton

Elieen Atkins as Elizabeth Sawyer

Reviewed by Eva Griffith

According to Martin White’s programme notes for Greg Doran’s 2014 production of The Witch of Edmonton,the original performances of this fact-based tragedy were presented at the Cockpit-Phoenix near Drury Lane in 1621. The Cockpit was the first theatre built in London’s now-perceived traditional ‘West End’, erected, originally, in 1616, only five years before the inception of Dekker, Ford and Rowley’s play. The central eponymous character, the witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, makes a self-referential playhouse comment: ‘the witch must be beaten’ she says ‘out of her cockpit’.

The drama deals with the true story of Sawyer, a woman recently executed for witchcraft, who came from the then Middlesex village of Edmonton and who bewilderingly confessed to a relationship with a black Devil Dog. Today this same ‘Edmonton’ is very much a part of north London, situated beyond fashionable Islington, beyond Hackney, and even further north than Tottenham (where the Spurs football team is based, for instance). It is a highly urbanised area and, if visited now, would show none of the village-y atmosphere presented in the Jacobean play. This village-y atmosphere, I guess, would be more recognisable as like Stratford-Upon-Avon today – or at least the hamlets surrounding it – in twenty-first-century Warwickshire.

This collaborative drama was first acted by Prince Charles’ Men sometime between 27 April and 29 December 1621 – the period when a pamphlet discussing Elizabeth Sawyer’s conviction and execution (on the 19th April) was entered into the Stationers’ Register and achieved notoriety. This account by Henry Goodcole is the only acknowledged source for the story. No legal document associated with it has been found by literature scholars or sought out, presumably, by historians. A successful drama in its time, then, achieving a Christmas court performance that same year, The Witch of Edmonton tackled a local matter, even if countrified in nature, which discomfortingly re-enacted societal evils rooted more in universal marriage expectations and attitudes to the elderly than magic and the black arts. The motivation for centralising the character of Sawyer and her ‘Dog’ – a subject likely to have attracted the attention of a demonology-interested King James – becomes an important and complex excuse for looking at normalised yet troubling relationships in a class-ridden, small-town and bullying English world. The presence of ‘Dog’ – the devil in disguise – lithely captured by Jay Simpson in this RSC production, is the touchstone for such evils as soon he appears among us. Within the intimacy of the Swan playhouse the night I saw the play, he always seemed but a dog biscuit away.

The play begins with the business of introducing the characters and their predicaments within the fuss of parish life. Doran’s production brought this out admirably. Frank Thorney, played by Ian Bonar, was much more of a local yokel than I had imagined when seeing him in the text described as a ‘gentleman’. Yet his gently lilting dialect played into the hands of our emotions as we watched him become the victim of his capacity to love and others’ capacities to manipulate him. Thinking he has made Winifred pregnant, he marries her, unaware she has been impregnated by Sir Arthur Clarington who helps the couple set up for future life. Frank’s father, unaware of the match, has organised a union for his son with Susan Carter, the daughter of a wealthy Edmonton yeoman. In order for the Thorneys to continue the benefits akin to their gentry status, Frank must marry thus wisely and in a confusion of both wishing to brave out a parent’s disappointment with lies and to do what seems best, he agrees to marry Susan. Therein lie the seeds of the tragedy for the young people of the play.

Then wanderingly she came, walking slowly among the smoky reeds of an imagined Edmonton marshland, in movement contrast to the sharp turns of this cruelly self-abusive society. This woman on stage was something different to the confident postures of machinating businessmen and the hesitantly pained expressions of the duped Frank. Eileen Atkins – that day an 81-year-old actor – walked slowly yet steadily through an evocatively recreated rural Middlesex from the back of a receptive Swan stage (designs by Niki Turner, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell). Atkins as Sawyer, with all the grace and assurance of a female thespian of standing, who knows the impressiveness of the slow gait unencumbered, entered among us gathering sticks. Her hair a wilderness of silver strands, she spoke softly like one who deserved to be heard – and you could have heard a pin drop:

‘And why on me? Why should the envious world

Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?’ (2.1, 1-2)

Between them Dekker, Ford and Rowley imagined an old woman in Sawyer but, in truth, Goodcole does not refer to her age once, only her bent frame and her eye put out by an accident – with a stick. We do not know the playwrights’ true motivations either for making her old or for dramatising the other dreadful predicament among the young, but – with regard to the latter – problems to do with parental controls over young people was never strange to early modern drama. Perhaps the horror of a Frank turned wife murderer seems alien – but not really when one thinks of Othello. Only the political context and the local location make it seem different.

Nothing here is very far away. Cruelty to the elderly and the plight of the old is still in the headlines. Young people today can feel frustrated and disaffected by the way the world has pinched and constricted them. Five young teenagers were arrested, recently, for the murder of a 53-year-old who lived on Edmonton Broadway – that same Edmonton – now in London – no longer a village; a mass killing case was also reported in the same month in Edmonton, Canada.

Yes, Dog still sucks on. And we know he is not far away – in Middlesex and, unfortunately, everywhere.

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