Review: The Welkin at The National Theatre

The Welkin is a word used to mean the vault of the sky and so begins the references to the universality of this play. It is set on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk in 1759, in a rural community.

By Angie Millard

When the play opens we see a box like structure in which the women are framed in white, brightly lit compartments doing ‘woman’s work’. They are churning butter, beating carpets ,dusting and so on. We then see a woman bloodstained and unrepentant asking her estranged husband for money to escape justice. A local midwife played by Maxine Peake is asked by Mr Coombes to join the trial and finally, the 12 women are sworn in and the jury, as such, assemble.

They must decide if Sally Poppy, played by Ria Zmitrowicz, is pregnant because, if she is, she will escape the gallows and be transported instead. She has been convicted on the evidence of her husband and found guilty, the other man in the case has gone free. She is played brilliantly and unsympathetically with no attempt made to gain the audience’s support.

Mr Coombes, a local worthy, is the one man present in the room with the women. He remains silent and is almost redundant until he is called on to inflict violence in the last sequence and very much makes his presence felt.

The play has been compared to Twelve Angry Men and reminded me of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls or The Fen but this should not detract from the originality of the basic concept which is to examine the interaction of the women and their powerlessness against a patriarchal society. Many things happen during the next two scenes which call our own prejudices into question. There are binary politics, superstition, a society at war with itself and clear parallels with our present Brexit-torn country.

Theatrically, we have some set pieces which offer clear symbols. The women make a wall to protect Sally from being seen during a gruelling examination by a doctor. They kneel and pray while she tries to pass water in a bucket; this is made difficult as she is handcuffed. People look out at the baying mob who it is clear cannot be pacified and they sing a capella Running up that Hill by Kate Bush which is moving and surprising.
There are some strong performances notably from Ria Zmitrowicz and Maxine Peake and the ensemble of women express their varied personalities well, especially the upper class Major’s wife: Haydn Gwynne. Philip McGinley manages to be an effective silent presence and to finally deliver a vicious assault but despite everything there are weaknesses in the focus of the narrative and the message is unclear.

I saw the play after only three performances and I should be most surprised if it wasn’t edited as it needs to lose at least 20 minutes. Also, the regional accents obscure clarity of diction and there was much which was inaudible. When all these problems are dealt with, it could be a strong production but, in my opinion, when Peake said “nobody blames God when there is a woman to blame instead’ has been articulated on many occasions before in different forms, without any solution being offered.

Why not take yourself to the City Screen on 21 May and judge for yourself?

The Welkin plays at The National Theatre until 23 May 2020 and streamed by City Screen, York on 21 May 2020. It is written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by James Macdonald.
Set and costume design is by Bunny Christie. Lighting is by Lee Curran.