BWW Review: THE WELKIN, National Theatre
How can we know more about a comet in outer space than we do a woman's body? So queries Lucy Kirkwood's superb new history play - a feminist courtroom drama that's equal parts Twelve Angry Men, The Crucible and The Vagina Monologues, plus a dash of searing, up-to-the-minute political and social commentary.
If that sounds heavy-going - well, it is in parts, and effectively so. But this is also a warm, humane and very funny piece, firmly anchored in women's everyday experience, the Georgian English speech leavened with frank, earthy dialect. Frustratingly, a combination of inconsistent accents and muddy diction means that dialogue isn't always clear - and it's a shame to lose even a word of this rich text. Undoubtedly, that can be addressed over the run.
We're in 1750s East Anglia, where Sally Poppy and her lover Thomas Mackay have been convinced of murdering the 11-year-old daughter of a prominent local noble family. Mackay has already been hanged, and Sally will soon follow - unless a "jury of matrons" can confirm that she is pregnant, meaning she'll be transported to the colonies instead. The jury is sequestered in a draughty court chamber, from which a baying mob baying can be heard.
Kirkwood's play is divided into chapters, and the opening one is key: a tableau of arduous household chores, with women caring for screaming babies, carrying heavy buckets of water, beating carpets and so on (made more striking by Bunny Christie's grid-like design and Lee Curran's stark lighting). Individually, it's what was expected of each woman at the time; collectively, it's evidently a group ground down and enslaved by incessant domesticity.
When we first meet Maxine Peake's veteran midwife Lizzie, she's churning butter - and rather than the idyllic or lascivious representations of such feminine charms, here it's clearly just tough, monotonous, tiring work - and surrounded by huge hanging sheets, almost swallowed up by them.
It's a concern for women on the jury, too; one frets about getting home in time to harvest her field of leeks, another pictures the piles of laundry awaiting her. A steady beat in Carolyn Downing's thoughtful soundscape thrums like the regular thumps of Lizzie's churning, the constant pull of domestic labour, or like a heartbeat - a reminder of the life, or possibly lives, at stake.
Kirkwood uses a clever device to sketch in her ensemble, and to set the tone of the piece: both brutally honest and smartly irreverent. As each juror swears in, we hear their inner voices - so we learn that one has had 21 children and three husbands, another 12 miscarriages; one is concerned about getting home to her boiled bacon dinner, another by the menopause.
It's Lizzie who raises the shrewd concerns. As there's no way for them to absolutely prove pregnancy at this early stage, they'll just be "walking on a carpet of opinion as if it were fact", she points out. Yet she also sees this as a rare chance for women to seize power and do things their way.
What might be a drama dominated by talk becomes, in Kirkwood's brilliant rendering, a visceral experience - quite literally. The women share their own physical pregnancy symptoms as they assess Sally, and bodily fluids are a key motif, from menstruation and maternal milk to onstage peeing and blood-letting. And if Sally is not saved, she'll be hanged and then "anatomised" - dissected before an audience.
The female physical experience is used against them - one man declares that their ovaries render them incapable of rational thought - but, interestingly, Sally herself rejects the theory that she was shaped by bad men (an abusive father and brother) and in thrall to her male lover; she's not going to be contained by a neat victim narrative.
Peake gives fire and fury to Lizzie, a woman intelligent enough to understand just how much this system reduces and dismisses people like her. Additionally, she confronts the well-meaning middle-class do-gooder's blinkered views, as well as other innate prejudices among the group. Two strong programme essays demonstrate the historical prevalence of class and in particular gender biases in justice and medicine - and how, dispiritingly, we're still subject to them today.
Overall, however, James Macdonald's well-paced production is a true ensemble piece, with great lines and character moments for everyone and fascinating cross-currents amidst the jury. In particular, Haydn Gwynne shows her fore-woman's class-based entitlement, Jenny Galloway demonstrates the torture of hot flashes, Brigid Zengeni is riveting in a key moment, Zainab Hasan is very funny as slow, gloomy Mary, and Cecilia Noble just about walks off with the piece via obstinate, ruthlessly candid Emma - who only softens her tongue when cosying up to someone posher than her.
There are also key turns from Philip McGinley as Mr Coombes, who struggles with the legal ruling that he remain silent in the chamber, Laurence Ubong Williams' horrifyingly cavalier doctor, and Ria Zmitrowicz as the rabid, foul-mouthed Sally, whose sincere yearning to escape domestic entrapment breaks through her snarling aggression.
The second half gets bogged down in personal revelations, and could probably be tightened slightly, but the ending is indelible - played out in excruciating detail, every moment earned. It pays off earlier beats cleverly, showing the mighty power of the feudal system and the limits of female authority.
The play also feels oddly resonant. Whether it's the Trump impeachment trial or Brexit discourse, lines about ignoring the truth "if it's inconvenient" could well apply. Plus there's discussion of men's control over (especially pregnant) women's bodies, the lack of understanding of women's physical experience, sexual assault, and Kirkwood's demonstration of how justice, veracity and duty can all be influenced by money and power - further cementing social inequality.
It's also fascinating to hear talk of the burgeoning empire - invasion of other nations partly for resources, yes, but also just to beat the French and become "masters of the world". That idea (a dominant part of Brexit nostalgia) is here sharply contrasted with the reality of normal people's lives, their hopes and hardships as far from that imperial vision as they are from Halley's Comet, which passed by in 1759.
As one woman notes, the usual pattern is for men to make a mess and leave women to clean it up. How history keeps on repeating...
The Welkin at the National Theatre until 23 May, and broadcast live to cinemas on 21 May
Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg