Jane Wenham play tours Suffolk theatre to reveal why we’re bewitched by our past
- Credit: Archant
Tales of witchcraft have been part of our folklore for centuries but a new play from Eastern Angles suggests the accusations may have a less supernatural background. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz
There is nothing we love so much about the past as witchcraft – particularly in this part of the world. Suffolk and Essex was home to Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, the 17th Century civil war veteran, who took it upon himself to seek out sorcery in the shires and put those who consorted with the devil (mostly women) to death.
It’s a story that still holds a morbid fascination today. A tale which illustrates what can happen when a bizarre form of mass insanity, fear and paranoia takes hold of a tired and war-weary population.
What makes the story even more chilling is the fact that accusation appeared to be enough – particularly if you were a bit odd-looking or lived apart from the rest of the community.
It seems that old women, people who in other societies were venerated, held in high regard for their wisdom and life experience, were suddenly seen as suspicious characters. Signs of aging were taken to be evidence of a dissolute or evil life, having been in league with the devil.
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Written down in black and white this may seem ludicrous, particularly when you remember that the accusers would have lived alongside these people for most of their lives. It is difficult to imagine a rational explanation for this mass hysteria which seemed to grip the nation, and particularly East Anglia, during the 1640s.
It wasn’t just a case of a couple of isolated incidents which has been blown up of all proportion by latter-day film makers and novelists.
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Historical records reveal that Matthew Hopkins, during his four- year reign of terror, put to death something like 300 women – that figure accounts for more than half the total number of witchcraft executions held between the beginning of the 15th Century and the end of the 1700s.
Official court records only account for 500 executions in 300 years, so for Matthew Hopkins to account for 300 of those in such a short period of time is staggering.
These historical stories are exactly the material that has drawn the attention of regional theatre company Eastern Angles. They like nothing more than to take a piece of existing folklore and commission a new play which sheds new light on our collective heritage.
So when Eastern Angles artistic director Ivan Cutting heard that Out of Joint’s Max Stafford Clark, who he had collaborated with in the past, was looking to work with National Theatre writer and Oscar winner Rebecca Lenkiewicz on a play about witches in 17th Century England, it seemed too good an opportunity not to get involved.
The resulting play Jane Wenham – The Witch of Walkern is now a co-production between the two companies and is touring Suffolk community and arts centres.
As you would expect, writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz finds the whole subject of witchcraft during this time fascinating. When I express surprise that anyone who had lived alongside these women for 20-30 years and could still seriously believe that they were genuine witches, she pointed out that it was also an opportunity for locals to settle old scores.
“People are very good at seizing the opportunity to exact revenge for some past slight or some imagined injustice.
“I came across the story of Jane Wenham, who was a real person, a woman in her sixties, and she was accused of making the cattle ill and then a local girl got ill and that was also laid at her door. We know a lot about her because there was a big public trial and afterwards there were a lot of pamphlets published debating whether she was innocent or guilty and it seemed to be an ideal subject for a play to discuss the whole idea of one element of society attacking another weaker section.”
She said she found it fascinating that Arthur Miller used the imagery of witch-hunts to talk about the McCarthy hearings in 1950s America in his play The Crucible.
“It has always been a very potent image and idea. I think what happened was seen as being so pervasive and so unjust that it has stayed with us as a form of moral shorthand.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about fear – fear of people who are not like us for all manner of reasons whether it’s socially different or whether it’s a difference in ethnicity.
“You look at the rise in UKIP, it’s all based on fear of the outsider. As we open our doors to people from different countries, we are reminded how we fear The Other – the other person, the other culture, the other language and customs… instead of embracing it, it seems we have a default position which is fear and that’s fascinating, as a writer, to explore.”
But Rebecca is more than just a writer, she is also an actress and an actor’s preoccupation with motives and characterisation also informs Rebecca’s writing, making her plays and screenplays as much character-studies as narratives.
The other element which Rebecca found fascinating during her research was the dawning realisation that the vast majority of those accused of being witches or in league with the devil were women.
“Before I started work on this I didn’t really know quite how many women were accused of witchcraft. There’s the popular image of women on the ducking stool or being burned at the stake but I thought that was Hollywood and modern-day sexism. But my research has uncovered very few men who were accused, or at least were convicted. The vast, vast majority were women and I do wonder why that was.
“There have been many theories but the one that is the most plausible is that if you looked different, didn’t live a conventional life with a husband and a family within the community then you were automatically different and as we have discovered if you are different you are threat, someone to be feared.
“Also I think that many of them were strong characters, independent people – you would have to be to live a life on your own and survive – and I think men were threatened by that. These were women who didn’t need their protection. More than that they probably rejected any help they were offered.
“What I find fascinating, in a horrific way, is that they weren’t just thrown in prison they were systematically tortured before being killed. It’s almost like a form of revenge.”
She said that the current mania about refugees coming to Europe is not a million miles away from the world inhabited by Jane Wenham.
“I was fascinated by how the story changed when that awful picture of the soldier picking up the dead child off the beach was published.
“Now, the facts of the migration hadn’t changed, the economic arguments hadn’t changed, the wars in Syria and the Middle-East hadn’t changed – what had changed was our perception of the migrants. Suddenly they were people, they were women and children, they were babies and they were dying.
“We knew they had been dying before. There had been reports in the press and on television but we hadn’t seen them. We were afraid of outsiders but once we saw that they were people, like us, suddenly they were being welcomed and cheered and people were demanding that governments do something to help.
“It’s things like that, that make me realise that our world is not so far removed from that of Jane Wenham and The Witchfinder General.”
So what is a Rebecca Lenkiewicz play? Are there subjects or themes that she returns to time and again?
She pauses to think about her answer before committing herself. “I think I am drawn to the notion of freedom. I did a play about Suffragettes and that was very much about what defines a woman and who are we expected to be. Then it went on to explore about how we are treated when we don’t conform.
“The outsider interests me a lot. I grew up with a lot of outsiders and while I love the idea of community, I am fascinated by how much you have to give up in order to fit in.”
She said that writers and actors can feel on occasions that they are one-step removed from society because they tend to watch and observe as part of their work.
“If you are researching something or watching out for things as part of something you are doing then you can feel detached from society but not permanently. I like people too much. I like writing, it’s a great privilege and I liked acting. I like working out what makes a person who they are. That’s why I write plays about people and how people interact with people.”
Jane Wenham – The Witch of Walkern opens at Halesworth Cut on October 6 and is on tour across Suffolk and Essex until October 17.