The curtain – a big, black, bold thing with the legend “1: HOUSEWORK” emblazoned on it and lined with too-bright LED lights – lifts, and we are presented with two-tier tableaux in which we get a window into typical ‘womanly’ tasks of the 1700s. Each of the twelve women has a different role to play, some washing, some hanging clothes, beating a carpet. The curtain stays lifted for a long time, long enough that I can hear the people behind me start to ask when this bit is going to end. I like that. Making the audience uncomfortable to break the silence of the theatre – well played, Welkin. We’re off to a good start.
(However, when the curtain does eventually drop, I already find myself tiring of the cumbersome thing – where a solid percentage of the budget has gone, I expect. It detracts from just about everything, and it’s not like we don’t know the set is being changed behind it.)
The Welkin is a new play by Lucy Kirkwood, and tells the story of one convicted woman’s life, which rests in the hands and the decision of twelve women who must confirm or deny her protestation that she is pregnant. All this takes place while the village, and indeed the country, watch for the passing of Halley’s Comet overhead – an interesting piece of context which marks a crosshairs for science and nature to collide, as they do, too, in the play itself.
Once the play gets going, I am pleasantly surprised by the range of actresses hired to make up the not-jury. We have young, old, black, white, Asian. Maxine Peak plays the heroine of the play, so overly characterised as such she may as well have the word written across her forehead. Her righteousness gets annoying very quickly, something which is addressed by the other characters in the play, which means that I’m willing to forgive it.
What is pretty unforgivable, however, is the mess that the play descends into in the second half. The first half is set up to be an interesting exploration into what happens when twelve angry women (get it?) are given voices in the legal system – how they work together, against each other, against the single, silent man in the room (one of many heavy-handed metaphors is the fact that this man is legally instructed to say nothing until the time comes to ask for the verdict). This on its own is an interesting enough concept to base a play around, I think, but we have a running time of nearly three hours here, and Kirkwood had more to say.
As I said, the second half descends into absolute chaos, with several of the women on the jury having a confessional moment when they reveal a life-changing secret which compromises, again and again, the impartiality of the jury. It gets a bit ridiculous – Maxine Peak has consorted with the devil, a woman who has remained silent for twenty years finally speaks, someone else has been hiding her identity this entire time – it just goes on a bit.
I think the inclusion of the doctor is really interesting. It seems like Kirkwood is trying to point out the futility, at least in the 1700s, of women being trusted with big decisions such as this. The women cannot decide, and most seem to suffer from internalised misogyny, so let’s bring a man in. A man with his horrible instruments which make the whole theatre wince and cringe and laugh nervously. It’s during his inspections that Lavender (on the jury of matrons) sums up the play with the words, “isn’t it queer that we know more about that comet than a woman’s body?”. While I understand why Kirkwood decided to include the doctor’s character, his scene leaves me wishing that we didn’t feel the need to add in a male character to remind us that women had no power at this point in history.
The play drags on more and more towards the end, with a final awful plot twist I won’t reveal here, but it sort of left me empty. What was the point of that play? What was I supposed to take away from it? It tried to cram so many different elements, points, and so much unnecessary plot that it was bursting at the seams. There were many elements that I enjoyed, including the well-placed comedy, the race-blind casting choices, the bare bones of the plot. But, by the end, it felt tired and exhausted and sort of rinsed out. I wish it had been condensed into one, intense but effective, act. It’s nice to see female voices get a turn to speak (onstage and off), after director Rufus Norris admitted that he “took his eye off the ball” when it came to female representation in the past.
In a world where this sort of excuse flies, maybe we just need to take whatever we can get?