Hoof and Horn Productions’ take on Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley’s play, The Witch of Edmonton, moves away from the original version’s focus on male characters. The subplots depicting the bigamist Frank Thorney, who murders his second wife, and Cuddy Banks (Tasha Saunders), who innocently attempts to befriend the devil-dog (Sam Gledhill), fade into the background or disappear entirely, in the case of Frank’s story. Bertie Harrison-Broninski and Felix Morrison’s adaptation of the 17th century play demonstrates a great awareness and sensitivity where the character of Elizabeth Sawyer (Lowri Spear) is concerned. Her story is brought to the fore through new additions to the text, which include monologues and instances of reflection around the muffling of female voices in the age of witch-burning.
The audience is immediately welcomed into a strange and uncomfortable world by Toby Stanford’s musical presence; a strange and occasionally dissonant melody floats around the room as the audience settles into their seats. This melody (an original composition by Stanford) slips in and out of every scene, often disappearing or reappearing imperceptibly. The stage is crafted into a decaying cabin, a prison cell, or a field with amazing attention to detail. Every inch of space is used, so that the low lighting of the edges of the stage and the contrasting brightly lit centre-stage become affective (and effective) tools for the cast to move in and out. The intelligent use of lighting, paired with Eve James’ fabulous set and costume design, creates a truly otherworldly glow around the characters on stage, as they oscillate between good and evil, temptation and shame.
Stanford’s keyboard playing provides an eerie backdrop to the whispering, growling, and shrieking of the characters who enter and leave the stage. Indeed, the cast do an incredible job of bringing to life different characters. Gledhill’s performance as Dog is particularly jarring. He embraces the role of the demonic canine companion with an incredible energy which transports him across the stage on all fours, growling out some truly terrifying lines as he coddles and manipulates Elizabeth. Furthermore, Fran Burt succeeds in transforming from the angry Old Banks (who makes a hobby out of beating old women with sticks) into the delicate and airy Ann Carter. Ann’s descent into madness is brilliantly illustrated by Burt’s recital of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Witch Burning’ in fragments and then as a whole after her character takes her own life. Olly Towarek (as Justice) and Emilka Cieslak (as Henry Goodcole) provide a counterpoint to Ann Carter, delivering strong performances of two characters who encapsulate the power of wrong beliefs, which can tempt normal people (just as well as devil-dog can) to commit atrocities.
In addition to Cuddy Banks, Saunders plays a ghost tour guide named Henry Hollis. Her opening monologue plays in the background in the form of some kind of YouTube video project, setting the scene with an intense – verging on manic – energy as she stares down her audience throughout the shaky footage. While Saunders, her voice rising and falling, tells the stories of the allegedly haunted land around Edmonton, Mother Sawyer haunts the stage, creeping along the front row of spectators and making unflinching eye contact from beneath a blood-red hood. The ghost tour videos, interspersed throughout the play, add a more modern twist to the already multi-layered story of Elizabeth: yet another voice takes on her tale and, in turn, takes it from her.
Henry Goodcole’s ‘pamphlet’, held up triumphantly at the end of the play as his “true and known” tale of Elizabeth Sawyer’s damning confession, is none other than Hoof and Horn Productions’ own leaflet for the play – a rather humorous and self-aware nod to their part in the legacy of men such as Goodcole, the original playwrights, and the vlogger Henry Hollis, whose voices have overshadowed or censored hers.