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Wicked, London, 2022
Photo by Matt CrockettLucie Jonest (Elphaba, London 2022)

The greatest theatre witches of all time

Double double toil and trouble! To celebrate Witch Week at Time Out, here’s a look at some of the stage’s all-time most iconic witches

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski
The Crucible
Johan PerssonPhotograph: Johan Persson

1. Abigail Williams, ‘The Crucible’

*deep drag on cigarette, puffs out smoke theatrically*

What… is a witch?

By strict supernatural standards, the answer is ‘not Abigail Williams’. The only witchcraft the teenage antagonist of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece ‘The Crucible’ is technically guilty of is having a bit of a dance (admittedly, this was a clear sign of witchcraft in the Puritan New England the play is set in).

However, the scared, hurt and vindictive young woman harnesses the superstition and cruelty of her society to spark the Salem Witch Trials, in which 20 innocent people were executed for consorting with the devil on the basis of her word. Based on a real-life historical figure, Abigail is a troubling, ambiguous and haunting character, crafted by a playwright at the absolute zenith of his powers. She’s not a ‘real’ witch, but her dark powers go far beyond those of anybody else on this list.

A production of ‘The Crucible’ is running at the National Theatre until Nov 5.

Wicked witch
Photo: Matt Crockett

2. Elphaba, ‘Wicked’

The Wicked Witch of the West has been kicking around in various mediums since she first appeared as the principal villain in Frank L Baum’s 1900 children’s novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. Her cackling, green-skinned, black-clad image was forever cemented by Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal in the iconic 1939 movie adaptation. But Gregory Maguire’s revisionist 1995 novel ‘Wicked’ offered a far more sympathetic portrayal and gave her the name Elphaba. In 2003 it was turned into a stage musical by Steven Schwartz, which offered an even more likeable take on the character, as a misunderstood tragic heroine. It’s one of the greatest reputational comebacks in witching history, one that’s cemented by her big number, the absolutely killer ‘Defying Gravity’. A two-part movie adaptation is due 2024 and 2025.

‘Wicked’ is booking at the Victoria Apollo until Nov 26 2023.

3. The Weird Sisters, ‘Macbeth’

We never actually learn very much about the three witches in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’: do they have names? Are they human? What do they do when not whispering evil prophecies to the play’s eponymous antihero? They’re so ambiguous that it’s rare to see any two productions of The Scottish Play where the characters are dealt with in even slightly the same way. And yet they’re pretty much the most memorable stage witches ever written, thanks to their immortal rhyming verse (‘by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’) and the truly chilling way in which they manipulate Macbeth via their twisted but entirely truthful prophecies.

4. The Witch, ‘Into the Woods’

A much more subtle forbear of Elphaba, the Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ describes herself with the words ‘I'm not good; I'm not nice; I'm just right’. She’s a complicated schemer whose elaborate machinations drive the subversive storyline of Sondheim’s delve into the world of fairytales; she’s never quite hero or villain, though she shifts to something like the former during the dark second half. The de facto lead character, she’s been played by a who’s who of great actresses, including Meryl Streep in the 2014 film.

Harry Potter witch
Photograph: Manuel Harlan

5. Hermione Granger, ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’

Years before weeping internet manbabies peed themselves in horror at the Black elves in ‘The Rings of Power’, they were basically doing… exactly the same over the casting of Black actor Noma Dumezweni in Jack Thorne’s ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’. The dedication to keeping the character of Hermione Granger Black in subsequent recastings has felt like a subtle but important ongoing reminder of the fact that the fantasy genre is not a racially segregated club. Importantly, Thorne’s adult Hermione is also a superb character, a mellower, tireder version of the teenage swot of JK Rowlings books, who appears in two distinct forms: an overworked Minister of Magic, and in an alternate timeline a bitter Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.

‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ is booking at the Palace Theatre until Jun 23 2023.

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