Review Roundup: THE WELKIN at the National Theatre - What Are the Critics Saying?
The Welkin opened at The National Theatre on 15th January and will run until 28 March, with further performances to be announced. It will be streamed as part of National Theatre Live on Thursday 21 May.
The Welkin reunites Maxine Peake (Black Mirror, Funny Cow) and Ria Zmitrowicz (The Doctor) after they starred together in the BAFTA-winning Three Girls on BBC One in 2017. The cast also includes Natasha Cottriall, Daneka Etchells, Jenny Galloway, Haydn Gwynne, Zainab Hasan, Aysha Kala, Wendy Kweh, Philip McGinley, Cecilia Noble, Laurence Ubong Williams, Dawn Sievewright, June Watson, Shaofan Wilson, Hara Yannas and Brigid Zengeni.
Rural Suffolk, 1759. As the country waits for Halley's comet, Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) is sentenced to hang for a heinous murder. When she claims to be pregnant, a jury of 12 matrons are taken from their housework to decide whether she's telling the truth, or simply trying to escape the noose. With only midwife Lizzy Luke (Maxine Peake) prepared to defend the girl, and a mob baying for blood outside, the matrons wrestle with their new authority, and the devil in their midst.
Let's see what the critics are saying...
Marianka Swain, BroadwayWorld: 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.
Arika Akbar, The Guardian: But the play's large-scale ambition undercuts some of its effects: the complex interplay of power between the women on stage leads to protracted conversations and not enough incident. There are a series of plot twists, but they do not build to pressure-cooker tension in James Macdonald's production. And, while the ensemble cast give incredibly strong performances - notably Haydn Gwynne, Natasha Cottriall and Jenny Galloway - with Peake's heroic midwife as the most magnificent, the multiple voices, stories and dynamics make it hard to retain a central narrative focus.
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out: An extremely talented cast do almost sell it to you, mind. Zmitrowicz is absolutely terrific as the sardonic, snarling Sally, who seems to have inexplicably stepped out of polite human society, thrilling in her total lack of inhibition. Biggest name Peake gets saddled with the most earnest and least rewarding part in the play, and struggles to impose herself beyond the role of straight woman. But there are rich pickings for the rest of the cast, who are essentially all great; endlessly flexible NT regular Noble is probably the pick of the bunch with her parsimonious hypocrite Emma.
Natasha Tripney, The Stage: Peake is superb, but it's a true ensemble piece. Everyone contributes and Zmitrowicz's Sally burns hot at the heart of it all: she's spiky, hostile and abhors pity. A scene in which she desperately tries to have a piss while shackled as the women pray for guidance is both disarmingly funny and shocking to watch. While the first half is beautifully calibrated, tight as a high wire, things slacken a bit in the second half, as Kirkwood layers on revelation after revelation, but there remains something thrilling about the way the play strains against its frame. Though it loses momentum towards the end and some of the accents wander all over the place, the play's strength lies in the richly textured picture it paints of these women and their lives, their relationship to their bodies and each other.
David Benedict, Variety: Numerous cast members shine, especially Cecilia Noble playing gloriously high status as the most utterly implacable of the matrons; dry-as-a-bone, all-knowing Jenny Galloway; and no-nonsense, pragmatic June Watson. The final scenes revel in dramatic reversals but rather than being gratuitous, they feel fully earned. Airing unpalatable truths tests everyone's strength of compassion, and the shocking climax and the entire world of the play's dangerously binary politics clings like a shroud long after the curtain falls.
Clive Davis, The Times: Less would have been so much more. Lucy Kirkwood's play about a dozen women corralled into a jury in 18th-century East Anglia has the makings of a taut psychological study. Yet inflated to three hours, the piece sprawls endlessly and drifts towards a melodramatic conclusion. Too many characters compete for our attention, plot twists are piled high, and in the end a conventional feminist subtext takes precedence over mere plausibility.
Sarah Crompton, Whats On Stage: There are problems: the accents adopted lead to a certain degree of incomprehensibility, particularly of Ria Zmitrowicz's angry Sally. Elizabeth's righteous preaching, although delivered with all Peake's habitual passion, sometimes merely underlines conclusions we could have drawn for ourselves. The life of the play lies in the vividness of the portrait it paints; it doesn't always need quite as much exposition as it gets. But it is a brilliant, brave, bold and intelligent three hours in the theatre. It is, for all the seriousness of its subject, often very funny yet at the close, profoundly moving.
Claire Allfree, Telegraph: Bunny Christie's set, with its muted hues and classical compositions, has the formal elegance of a Vermeer painting. The panoply of distinctive female voices is a joy. The final 20 minutes find a power and coherence previously lacking. But I'm ashamed to say that, much like childbirth, I was relieved when it was finally over.
Steve Dinneen, City A.M.: The stultifying nature of domesticity hangs heavy over the whole affair, with each woman a prisoner in her own way. It's played out against an incredibly stylish, stylised backdrop, with the staccato rhythm of household chores - the beating of carpet, the churning of butter - providing momentum between scenes. It's an exceptional play, dragging you through an emotional journey that will leave you as damp and colourless as one of these washerwomen's freshly laundered sheets.