REVIEW: The Welkin (National Theatre, Lyttelton) ★★★

The Welkin is a new play by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by James Macdonald. The world premiere was held at the National Theatre this week and it will be broadcast in cinemas on 21 May with NT Live.

Kirkwood has set the play in a rural community on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk in 1759 as the country waits for Halley’s comet. Sally (Ria Zmitrowicz) has been sentenced to hang for committing a horrific murder; she claims to be pregnant; is she lying to escape the noose or is she really telling the truth?

The Justice puts her fate in the hands of 12 local women, taken away from their homes and shut in a room with no heat, light, food or drink. Their task is to decide if Sally is really pregnant; her guilt is not in doubt, but their decision will influence her punishment; hanging or transportation.

We are introduced to these women one by one as they take their oath to the Justice. They take their places in the room where they will be confined until they make their judgement with a mob baying for Sally’s blood in the street outside and begin their deliberation. With little guidance and strong opinions in the group, some seem to have already made up their minds, others seem uncomfortable with the role thrust upon them and others want to get it done so they can get back to their homes. Only Lizzy (Maxine Peake), the local midwife is prepared to take Sally’s side at first.

The story is told on a stark stage with harsh lighting; the box of the stage in the Lyttelton is used to good effect here as we are presented with a few short scenes as the story is set up before we enter the room where the women are to decide Sally’s fate.

Kirkwood’s play shows a wide range of women on stage with different experiences, backgrounds and viewpoints. The two most developed characters, unsurprisingly, are Sally (Zmitrowicz) and Lizzy (Peake). Zmitrowicz flits between being a naive young woman and a rude, violent girl, doing little to gain sympathy from her peers or the audience. Peake holds the tale together, as the town’s midwife she has seen the other women at their most vulnerable and knows many of their secrets. Many of the other characters would have merited a tale of their own, we only hear snippets of their lives in snatched conversations.

At a running time of three hours, this play felt over-long while also leaving me wanting to know more about some of the women on the stage. What sounds like a very dark tale also has some lighter moments although the final scenes bring the horror of the situation into sharp focus. This is not a play for the faint hearted, it doesn’t pull any punches about many of the injustices faced by women in the 1700s.

Reviewed by Rhiannon Evans
Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg