"Look at fire and smile"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 01/05/17

Impeccable research by Tracey Norman and intelligent, compelling acting from Circle of Spears (Tracey and Mark Norman and Sam Burns) combine to conjure up ‘Witch’, a profoundly thought-provoking play.

Inspired the story of Lyme Regis’s Deannes Gimmerton, the play does not focus on the supernatural or adolescent hysteria, or the effects of ergot and Jimson weed. Tracey explores what every wise woman and cunning man knows – the potency of fear, guilt, shame, lust and secrecy to reveal our shadow selves.

Margery Scrope (Tracey Norman) knows secrets. The women who come to her seeking help with childbirth – and, by implication, contraception and abortion - confide in her as well as buying her herbal remedies. This gives Margery power, but exposes her to danger and accusations of witchcraft if the medicines don’t work, or husbands discover their transgressions are known outside the marital home. Women such as Margery live outside the society they try to help. If they are left in peace, a kind of neighbourliness is possible. But Margery’s story shows how vulnerable women are to changes in the law; dependence on men for financial security, and the dangers of temporary housing and grudgingly given hand-outs. I use the present tense because, over four centuries on from the persecution of witches, women remain at the mercy of men like Donald Trump who with one stroke of his pen can sign away hard-won rights to pregnancy help and advice. The themes are timeless, and I weep as I watch the cynical erosion of all the reforms that flourished in my youth around women’s rights, job security, decent pay and conditions, secure housing, free education and love of community. Will uppity, strong independent women always be at the mercy of men like Thomas Latimer (Sam Burns) and magistrate Sir William Tyrell (Mark Norman)?

‘Witch’ is beautifully constructed – there are no cheap caricatures here and no lazy thinking. Magistrate Sir William Tyrell examines the case before him with intelligence and compassion, and scant regard for ignorant superstition. The pivotal point when his heart hardens is well observed, and has all to do with how the guilt we feel for those we have wronged can turn to resentment because they ‘make’ us feel uncomfortable. That such resentment can sour into hatred can be seen now when the poor are vilified as instrumental in their own poverty, rather than victims of brutal legislation, the greed of money manipulators and the excesses of the American sub-prime market.

So ‘Is Margery blameless?’ is one question the audience has to consider; is she innocent of the charges brought against her is another. Blessed with profound insight into the human condition, justifiable anger at her treatment, a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue, she presents herself most of the time in the way she knows will stand her in good stead with powerful men – quiet, reasonable, modest. When the mask slips we are thrilled at the release of rage, yet afraid that she will pay the price for stepping out of line. The authority of the Old Testament is too easily invoked. ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’

This is powerful stuff, and will stay with me. The balance between music and speech meant I missed the closing lines, which was a shame, as such dense, spare writing means that every word counts. After such highly-charged, emotional work, it is a lot to ask of a cast that they engage in discussion with the audience, but Circle of Spears did so with their trademark intelligence.

The performance staged at St Thomas Library, Exeter, by the inspired, resourceful and helpful Library Supervisor, Lee Rawlings and his hospitable team, was sold out, and justifiably so. If you missed it, and would like to know more about Circle of Spears and their excellent work on audio-books, visit their website, which gives dates of forthcoming performances.


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