"For my money, The Welkin is one of the finest productions I have seen on the Criterion’s stage, which is saying something."
Nick LeMesurier, Warwickshire World
Rural Suffolk, 1759. As the country waits for Halley's Comet, Sally Poppy is sentenced to hang for a heinous murder. When she claims to be pregnant, a jury of twelve 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 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.
Lucy Kirkwood's play The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre, London, in January 2020, directed by James Macdonald and featuring Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz.
Reviews of the play
"brilliant, brave, bold and intelligent... It is, for all the seriousness of its subject, often very funny, yet at the close, profoundly moving." Sarah Crompton, Whatsonstage
"Lucy Kirkwood’s huge new drama pulls 18th century lives thrillingly into present-day focus." David Benedict, Variety
This play has a central diversity story at its heart, concerned with the control of the patriarchy through paralleling the experiences of women in past and present society. The playwright asks for diversity in ethnicity, identity and background in the instruction that the casting “reflects the present day population of the place the play is being performed in, not East Anglia in the 1750s".
Passion runs through The Criterion Theatre’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s 2020 play The Welkin, running until 28 October. There’s the passion of the performances, especially the two lead actresses, Anne-marie Greene as Elizabeth Luke, local midwife and advocate of women’s power and knowledge, and Alice Scott as Sally Poppy, stroppy foul-mouthed and seemingly unrepentant victim of a system and a culture that is built upon privilege, both gendered and class-based.
The play is largely set in 1759. Halley’s comet is about to pass over the land, presaging change. Sally stands condemned of murdering the child of wealthy landowner Lady Wax, whose family rule over the rural community in Suffolk. Her alleged accomplice has already been hanged for it, and the crowd are now baying for her blood. But Sally claims she is pregnant. Under the rules of the time, she cannot be hanged as that would destroy the life of her innocent child, though she can be transported to America, a sentence which carries its own risk of death. Her fate lies in the hands of twelve women, assembled from the local populace, who must decide whether or not she is telling the truth.
The play knowingly echoes Twelve Angry Men, a 1950s courtroom drama that became a successful stage and film production, and which centred upon one member of the reluctant jury insisting on justice rather than expediency and convenience for the condemned. Here it is less justice per se that motivates Elizabeth Luke as the rights of women - and herself in particular - to preside over the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, the last refuge for women against male power. She is prepared to go all out in defence of Sally, who annoyingly doesn’t seem to want to be saved by Elizabeth for reasons that come to be revealed. The members of the jury, each played as strong women characters in their own right, have their own issues to deal with, some honest, some not, all of which come out in this long but gripping drama. If men are made uncomfortable by the physical reality of women’s health, pregnancy and childbirth then an advisory warning might be in order, for this play does not shy away from the brutal facts of conception, birth and death.
All this might sound unremittingly dark. But the performance is shot through with a dry humour that lifts it way above mere polemic. For my money, The Welkin is one of the finest productions I have seen on the Criterion’s stage, which is saying something. Though the play is perhaps a little over long, especially in the early stages, and somewhat heavy on message, it grips throughout. There is polemic for sure, but it is matched by psychological depth, intelligence and a matchless cast who deliver a powerful story.
The Welkin, once seen, will not easily be forgotten.
Nick LeMesurier, Warwickshire World
The Welkin portrays the story of twelve women who have been chosen to decide the fate of another. Convicted of helping in the murder of a young girl, Sally Poppy claims to be pregnant and the dozen women have been hurriedly assembled to decide if her claim is true, or an excuse to escape the hangman’s noose. Whilst the increasingly rowdy crowd shout outside the window, impatient for the spectacle of another hanging, the women must all overcome prejudices and agree on what is the truth. Plucked from their housework, with their undone chores playing on their mind, the women wrestle with their own issues as they struggle to cope with the power that has been placed in their hands and the justice and morality they have to exercise. Banned from food, drink, heat and the light of candles during the process, tensions inevitably escalate and the explosive truths revealed, as voices are found and secrets uncovered, aren’t necessarily the truths they were searching for.
Set around the 18th century, with the occasional deliberate anachronism, this production features a largely female cast of an assortment of characters, with an assortment of accents, who all introduce themselves in their own way as they take turns to take the oath. We learn of their abundance of, or lack of, children, and their concerns and preoccupations, varying from picking leeks, pregnancies through hot flushes and old grudges to missing nutmegs and coming comets. Despite the heavy subject matter the multi-age cast, depicting matriarchs, the middle-aged and youngsters, succeed in bringing out the humour in the script and they interact well together to engage attention in a play of a minimalistic set and very few scene changes. Apart from the shorter opening scenes, most of the cast are on stage for most of the show. They join together in a song in an especially poignant moment, again with some of the tension diffused through humour. Anne-marie Greene particularly stood out in the role of conflicted midwife Elizabeth Luke, who is reluctantly persuaded to become the twelfth member of the group. There is also a strong raw performance by Alice Scott as the bitter,but seemingly unrepentant, accused, Sally Poppy.
The title of the play, The Welkin, refers to the sky or heavens, where several of the characters regularly glance in search of the imminently expected arrival of Halley’s comet, keen not to miss the first predicted appearance of this once-in-a-lifetime celestial wonder. As superstitions abound, glancing at the sky becomes a means of transcending the struggles that are weighing them down, both their everyday burdens and the conflicts, indignities and abuses that could occur to them as females in a male-dominated society.
Staring upwards becomes especially significant as the play reaches its dramatic conclusion: go gaze at it whilst you can.
Alison Manning, Elementary Whatson