The Oldie

Theatre Nicholas Lezard

THE WELKIN Lyttelton Theatre


Quite by chance I heard the author of this play, Lucy Kirkwood, on Radio 4’s Front Row a day or two before I went to see it.

She was telling the presenter and the world that The Welkin – an old word meaning ‘the firmament’, in case you didn’t know – is a play about a jury of women convened in mid-18th-century rural Suffolk in order to ascertain whether or not a convicted murderess is pregnant. The point being that the murderess can’t be hanged if she is, because that would involve taking an innocent life. There’s lots in it about female control, or the lack of it, over their own bodies, because of both natural biological processes, and the patriarchy.

‘I did a lot of research for this on Mumsnet,’ she said, and my eyes rolled so hard in their sockets they creaked.

So I was slightly apprehensi­ve when I went to the Lyttelton and read, before curtain-up, a rousing but rather stern piece by Helena Kennedy QC in the programme. (‘It is not surprising that legal systems the world over fail women’ etc.)

There was also an extract from a 17th-century manual on midwifery, along with an illustrati­on of a serene but peeled-open woman revealing a foetus in her womb.

And when the curtain did go up, we saw, in 12 boxes arrayed in rows on the stage, in harsh, white light, 12 women in 18th-century dress, one to each box or open cubicle, doing menial, womanly tasks: washing linen, mangling linen, pounding milk churns etc, all in motion except for the milkmaid, who had to stand still with the yoke and dangling buckets, because if she took a step, she’d drop 12 feet to the stage in front of her.

Over the PA, we heard the sound of a baby, or babies, crying. Oh dear, I thought, I’m in for a two-and-a-half-hour lecture about the Shameful Way Women Are Treated. This is going to be like The Handmaid’s Tale with a country aggzent.

Well, I was right about the aggzent. With a couple of exceptions, we may as well be in one of the more working-class areas of Ambridge. But while there is something of the lecture on women’s rights hovering over it all, and quite right too, it is much, much better than any old lecture.

There’s a sort of throat-clearing opening scene between a minor official, Mr Coombes (Philip Mcginley), and a

kind of chief midwife – and the moral centre of the play – Elizabeth (Maxine Peake). I don’t remember much of this because I was fixated by the drops of milk splashing out occasional­ly from the churn she was … churning.

Then all 12 women stand in a row while an off-stage male voice instructs them to stand forward and, after a brief account of their situation, kiss the (impressive­ly large) Bible held out to them by Mr Coombes. Each woman steps forward to give a little speech. They are chosen because they are all, or have been, mothers. The idea is that they can tell when a woman is pregnant when she’s not visibly so; men can’t.

And this is when the play comes alive, and you know you are in for a good time after all, for, marvellous­ly, there is humour in it. And not the thin, stretched jokes you get in the theatre too often, but good, throaty belly laughs. (One is made to think a lot about bellies, swollen or not.) There are jokes about the menopause, the withdrawal method – you name it – throughout.

‘My son weighed 12 pounds when he was born,’ says one Emma Jenkins (Cecilia Noble), ‘but we get on very well now.’ That got a big laugh, especially as Noble’s delivery suggested it had taken her a long time to forgive her son, and he wasn’t really out of the woods yet. A lot of the jokes are like this – spirited railings against the female lot – and I mean this in a highly compliment­ary way. I was laughing as much as anyone else.

It’s not a comedy, though. Yet all good art has to contain at least the possibilit­y of laughter, I think. There’s a moment

when the accused, Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz; an excellent exercise in wilful bolshiness), manacled, tries to pee in a bucket while around her the jury are sitting in a circle, praying, while Coombes, forbidden to watch or even speak, is facing the door (Mcginley is excellent even when he can’t talk). It’s both appalling and hilarious.

It’s a bit long, but the cast and direction are all so unobtrusiv­ely good that you don’t mind. It’s not easy, I imagine, getting 12 almost identicall­y dressed women on stage to have clearly defined characters, but they do. If we recall 12 Angry Men it’s deliberate, and part of the serious fun.

 ??  ?? The midwife’s tale: Elizabeth (Maxine Peake), moral centre of
The Welkin
The midwife’s tale: Elizabeth (Maxine Peake), moral centre of The Welkin

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