If, like me, you have an unhealthy penchant for ghost stories, but the paranormal scene at Oxford just isn’t quite cutting it for you, then fear not – Hoof and Horn Productions have got you covered. Their fresh take on the 17th century classic The Witch of Edmonton, which heads to the BT Studio in Seventh Week, promises a sufficiently sinister experience for any self-professed lover of the macabre.
Anyone familiar with the original tragicomedy (written by Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley) will know that it follows multiple stories. At the core, we have the story of the eponymous witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, an old woman who turns to witchcraft after a wrongful accusation (with the help of the devil in the form of a dog, naturally). Other stories include that of Frank Thorney (who is forced to enter a bigamous marriage, and ends up murdering one of his wives) and of the morris-dancing Cuddy Banks.
Writers and directors Bertie Harrison-Broninski and Felix Morrison’s take is ambitious and radical: plucking out Elizabeth’s story, they have put it at the forefront of their production, and constructed a new narrative around it. As is clear from the first scene I preview, their new narrative is highly original and entertaining: to my delight and surprise, in the unlikely location of the Baring Room in Hertford College, I am treated to a ghost tour. Tasha Saunders is highly convincing as our eccentric ghost tour guide, who summarises the mythology surrounding the witch at the beginning of the play. With the aid of a brilliant script, her performance is compelling, and she singlehandedly delivers one of the most captivating opening scenes in a student play I have seen so far. “Are you a believer or do you believe?” she asks, her eyes shifting and widening almost manically, her voice rising and falling to a raspy whisper throughout her speech.
A striking aspect of Harrison-Broninski and Morrison’s production is its employment of multimedia. For example, Saunders’ first monologue (one of three throughout the play) will be delivered to the audience on video. For me, considering how well Saunders commanded the physical stage, this decision is quite surprising; I look forward to seeing on the night whether the video is as effective as the physical performance I witness. Sure to please any lovers of musicals in the audience, I am told that there is also dancing and original music (composed by Toby Stanford) throughout, and the first instance of this precedes Saunders’ opening monologue. Though I am not lucky enough to preview the opening dance, Stanford grants me a taste of the music which accompanies it with an impressive performance on the piano. The music being somewhat dissonant, brooding and at times almost joyful, I anticipate the dance will also be suitably weird and wonderful.
The other two scenes I preview are equally as compelling. In the first, a distressed Elizabeth (Lowri Spear), having just been abused by her local community (“I am shunned and hated like a sickness,” she laments), expresses her desire for revenge. So this scene heralds her descent into world of the occult as she imagines what it would be like to be a powerful witch. Spear looks appropriately witch-like in a hooded red cloak, a circular arrangement of sticks and logs on the ground nearby reinforcing the supernatural atmosphere.
However, from this scene, as well as the final one I preview, it is Sam Gledhill’s performance as the devil-dog which is the one I am most excited to watch on the night. Simultaneously coercive and friendly towards Elizabeth, the devil-dog is a complex, shifting character in the narrative, his presence rather terrifying and his relationship with the witch unsettling. The role is undoubtedly a challenging one, but Gledhill fully embraces it. With a black dog mask covering his entire face, Gledhill moves with remarkable ease on all fours across the stage, speaking in a low, growling voice.
Aware of the misogynistic undercurrent of the original play, and the fact that, like their predecessors, they are two men telling a woman’s story (a story which is based on true events), Harrison-Broninski and Morrison are particularly conscious to convey a sympathetic view of Sawyer’s story in their take on The Witch of Edmonton. It is clear their production is much more than merely a ghost story. They have constructed a kaleidoscope of perspectives throughout the play, encouraging their audience to think about authorship and who’s telling a story. Considering how much work they’ve put into adapting the play, throughout the preview Harrison-Broninski and Morrison are remarkably modest – though I am sure the audience in 7th week will agree with me that the feat of their undertaking deserves great praise.
The Witch of Edmonton is on at the BT Studio from Tues 11th until Sat 15th June (Seventh Week)