Edinburgh Fringe 2019
‘They call me witch. A teeth-gnasher. A shape-shifter. Based on a 19th century Sussex tale, this piece of feminist folk-horror explores themes of female sexuality, ageing and loss as kinds of alchemy. With a female protagonist who takes control of her life, rather than being a victim, Sary offers a feminist slant on the folk horror genre. “When a man says a woman turns into a hare, it means she were too quick for him!”
The European brown hare is associated in folklore with fertility, shapeshifting & the moon;
My mates and me was resting under a hedge, ‘aving our dinner, when a hare comes lopping along. Darky Tussler says, ‘That bain’t a hare, that’s that ol’ ‘ooman down along under. I takes up a stone and throws it, and catches that hare. She didn’t half holler, letting out a screech just like an ol’ ‘ooman, an’ then she goes limping away. That night, when we was down in the village, Ol’ Sary Weaver – folks said she were a witch – comes ‘obbling outer ‘er cottage. When she sees we, she lets out a screech, same as the hare did, and goes a-limping off, for all of the world as if she were that there hare. She were lame in the same leg wot the hare was, but she ‘adn’t been afore!’
– From The Folklore of Sussex, Jacqueline Simpson
Sary is based loosely on the tale of Sary Weaver from around the 1800s. This new writing from Sam Chittenden takes inspiration from this tale, using the evocative and visually rich dialects of Sussex at this time. The use of language throughout the show – loving mud (mud that sticks to you), after burden (Placenta), the baldy skull (death) and wool gathering (day dreaming), gives an authenticity to this work that heightens the atmosphere of magical folklore.
Despite being in the underbelly of an Edinburgh Novotel in 2019 surrounded by simple black curtains and a modest set, the story unfolded with a fierce grace and the hotel began to recede and we arrived quickly into another, more ancient time with the two women. Into their world of hard physical work and cold winters. Of Uncles raping nieces but the young girl taking on the shame. Of evenings by candlelight sharing stories, cosying up close to each other tending the fire and listening to the wind and rain beat at the door. No iPhones, no TV, no newspapers, no schools. And for this woman: no community, no family. Living alone without other human connection, the mind – and spirit – can offer many possibilities to comfort someone alone with their grief and their mortality. This is a time not all that far from now and yet seems like another universe.
Chittenden has researched her subject well, paid close attention to detail, and has crafted a beautiful script full of powerful dialogue and poetic expression. The emotional intensity builds throughout the narrative and the final intense scene leaves us bittersweet. The delight is feeling fully immersed in their world. The seated audience loom over the two women, but the two performers hold their own as their power and passion rise and eventually they loom over us; proud and resilient women. I was utterly fascinated watching the faces of the two women; there was richness to explore here in aging, loss, societal views of strong fierce women, the burning of witches. The things that women bear, their resourcefulness and determination. Their silent sorrows.
What really struck me about the depiction of womanhood was seeing the qualities of both youth and age, the strengths of both as well as their vulnerability. It was a real celebration in accepting both the Maiden and the Crone, as being part of the same, both ages holding each other up. The older looks back on youth with a knowing smile and a joy in what was, the young looks up to older with comfort and certainty in what will be.
A high quality play made even more impressive by the unflinching production that to me, felt like watching an intimate performance of a National Theatre play. I could see it on a bigger stage and it not lose its delicate touch.
This is a beautiful piece of theatre, crafted with elegance and passion.