Edinburgh Fringe 2009
The Last Witch
Traverse Theatre Company
Venue: The Royal Lyceum Theatre
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
In 1727, a woman in the rural north-east Scots town of Dornoch was put on trial, charged with witchcraft. When found guilty she was burned to death, just nine years before such punishments became illegal in England and Scotland. Rona Munro’s play expands on the few facts of the case and turns this true story into a probing of not only our fascination with witchcraft but also of human nature.
Presented as part of the Traverse Theatre’s contribution to the Edinburgh International Festival, ‘The Last Witch’ serves as a counterpoint to the overall EIF theme of the Scottish Enlightenment. It succeeds brilliantly in this respect, depicting a community full of superstition, suspicion and petty rivalries. It is a pre-Enlightenment culture full of ignorant peasants and ambitious, ruthless minor officials. It is a place and time that takes Christianity for granted, where to deviate from said religion is to deviate from society and to place oneself outside of respectable humanity. In a period of increasing religious tensions, such heresies were frowned upon by the churches and the state that tried to enforce political will through religion.
But that wasn’t the primary motivation for many witch-hunts. Rona Munro’s clever, poetic script cuts to the chase and goes straight to the heart of many denunciations; petty local disagreements, often neighbours bickering. In the case of Janet Horne, it’s like a modern dispute over the height of conifers in the neighbours’ back garden leading to her being accused of witchcraft. Once the accusation is made Munro’s plot unfolds, trundling along and building up momentum as it rushes towards its fiery climax. She avoids tricky questions of religion and politics, instead homing in on the real reasons Janet is in trouble. The accusation springs from very mundane, everyday concerns, and goes some way to showing how such matters can get out of hand if left unchecked – the startled about-face by George Anton’s Douglas, when he sees how far his words have carried him, is just one of several dark comic gems littered through the script, .
Munro thus allows her characters a terrible humanity, showing the use of a continent-wide consensus for the levelling of personal scores in isolated communities. Crucially, Janet isn’t charged because she defies God, nor because she offends the clergy or the state. She is in fact let off when she gets one over the new representative of the law in Dornoch, Captain Ross. No, she’s pulled up when she challenges Ross’ secular authority. Suddenly, she’s a heretic and pariah, and her local dispute with a neighbour has escalated and is being taken seriously by Ross. It’s a damning account of the pettiness of human nature.
Both the set and lighting design are simple yet beautiful, with an inner circular space serving first as Janet’s house then the cell in which she is chained to different men trying to break her spirit. The violence and pathos of these scenes in the second act are impressive pieces of work, as is the aerialist aesthetic at play. Meanwhile, the lighting is sculptural in application, with subtle changes mid-scene seamlessly highlighting new spots for audience attention.
While Ryan Fletcher’s youthful, devilishly attractive Nick swaggers about the stage, mankind does a pretty good job of damning and corrupting itself without his demonic help – as shown clearly in Munro’s cutting take on the witch-hunts. This is a dark, beautiful deconstruction of the human soul when it pushes itself to extremes. Highly recommended.