Photo by Richard Hall

Abigail by Stephen Gillard and Laura Turner – The Space, Isle of Dogs, London

‘Abigail’, a new play by Stephen Gillard and Laura Turner, explores what may have happened to Abigail Williams who, as a child, was a protagonist in the Salem Witch Trials. Probably 12 years old, she led accusations of witchcraft against members of her household that resulted in the execution or death in prison of 20 people. Abigail, whose character was established by Arthur Miller in his Salem play ‘The Crucible’, left town with her friend Mercy Lewis as the consequences of her actions became apparent. She then disappeared from history, apart from a solitary report that she had become a prostitute in Boston. Gillard and Turner (who also plays the lead) run with this idea, imagining how Mercy and Abigail might have faired in 1690s Boston. Their ingenious concept provides a platform to explore the position of women in a 17th century Massachusetts city, and of bisexual women in particular.

Historically, Abigail admitted during the trials to dancing in the woods with other women, notably her cousin Betty and Tituba, her family’s slave. The play explores her sexual relationship with another woman – Solvi (Sophie Jane Corner) – who Abigail subsequently betrays. She is haunted by Solvi throughout the play, while seeking adventure in Boston. She and Mercy are hopelessly naive, and are almost immediately lured into a brothel and the clutches of a pimp, Jack (James Green), who manipulates them effortlessly. The only friend they find is Milly (Sarah Isbell), an older sex worker, hardened to abuse and violence, but with an underlying sympathy for the girls’ situation and an attraction to Abigail. The latter, however, has a debt to repay to Solvi, and events lead her to a decision that could redeem and destroy her.

‘Abigail’ is a dark play, that doesn’t shy from exploring the truly grim things that could easily happen to young women without protectors. Gin features heavily, as does laudanum in a surprisingly early appearance for a drug better known for its popularity from the 18th century onwards. So does violence and rape, which is unflinchingly depicted on stage in a production also directed by Stephen Gillard. For women, Salem provided just a glimpse of the harsh life that awaited them in the New World, but ‘Abigail’ is concerned with more than the horrors of the past. It aims to reveal secret, inner lives that could not be expressed publicly, and that can only exist for us through creative acts of reimagination and performance, such as this. In doing so, it brings the far away world of 17th century Massachusetts into our own world, revealing lessons hidden beyond official records.

The imagination of the authors and the commitment of Fury Theatre should be commended, as should The Space, a delightful venue on the Isle of Dogs, for staging experimental work and allowing young performers and writers to find their feet. Companies such as Fury, led by women who question assumptions about the way stories have been told, and show how they can be retold differently and inclusively, are essential to the future of the stage – keeping theatre moving, evolving and speaking to us.

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