The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood – National Theatre: Lyttleton
The title of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is an antiquated term for the heavens – both the sky itself, and the heavenly judgement beyond. The condemned woman at the heart of this ambitious enthralling show, in the words of Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Cary, has no recourse on earth and “must look to the welkin” for her salvation. The year in 1759, and Lady Cary is one of a “jury of matrons” brought together to examine Sally Poppy (Ria Dmitrovic). Convicted of the brutal murder of a child, which she admits, she has “pleaded the belly” and twelve local women are summoned to confirm or deny her claim.
Kirkwood has lighted on a clever device, a little known historical setting that allows her to write a sort of ‘Twelve Angry Women’: a tightly woven, tense drama played out in a single room, with a cast consisting principally of twelve women. They are supervised by a male employee of the court who, symbolically, is forbidden to speak. Kirkwood’s writing is impressive, and she clearly relishes the task of teasing out the characters of the twelve and of using – and not over-using – the rich language of the time. From Maxine Peake’s midwife, Lizzy Luke – a woman in a position of responsibility, with more on her mind than she admits – to Mary Middleton (Zainab Hasan), who believes her house contains a haunted tankard, every character is real and often funny, as well as heart-breaking. It is difficult to single out performances, because the exceptionally strong ensemble work is the point of the show, but June Watson is inimitable as Sarah Smith, whose wisdom is based on experience.
The Welkin is a tragic story and the setting, with women in charge, is at odds with everything else outside the room. It provides a temporary respite from beatings, childbirth, never-ending hard work, and a constant status as a second-class being. Kirkwood uses this lens to focus important themes, but allows them to emerge naturally from the pressures placed on the women in the room, and the way they talk when they are alone together. Peake is excellent as the conflicted Lizzy, the play’s moral compass, while Ria Dmitrovic adds to her fast-growing reputation as a key actor of her generation with a performance full of spite and vulnerability. Haydn Gwynne is also a fine, haughty presence although her story arc is, perhaps, the play’s weakest aspect. Expertly directed by James Macdonald, the play opens with a tableau of women doing the domestic tasks from which events to come provide a brief respite, and is calmly staged with space for characters to breathe and the occasional, well-judged coup de theatre. These include an extraordinary scene with the cast, in the only breach of the play’s setting, singing an home-made acapella version of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, asking for the ‘deal with God’ that can never come. It is a moment of wonder, in a play that delivers on many fronts: as an epic, as a comedy, as a historical drama, as a voice for the voiceless, and as a thoroughly entertaining night out, with performers of the highest quality. Rufus Norris has just signed up for five more years in charge of the National Theatre and, judging by The Welkin, his mission to stage serious, new writing by women is properly on track.