'The Welkin' is postponed due to Covid-19
‘Twelve Angry Men’ meets ‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ meets a really out-there Agatha Christie novel in this often brilliant and somewhat frustrating new drama from Lucy Kirkwood.
It is rural Suffolk, 1759, and a young woman soaked in blood (the phenomenal Ria Zmitrowicz’s Sally Poppy) has returned home in the dead of night to try and extract some money from the husband she abandoned four months ago. Laughing hoarsely, she casually mentions the fact she’s pregnant with another man’s child.
Skip forward a scene, and Elizabeth Luke (Maxine Peake) is churning milk when minor local dignitary Mr Coombes (Philip McGinley) drops by to persuade her to be part of a ‘jury of matrons’ tasked with determining whether the now-convicted Sally is indeed pregnant, something that would commute her sentence from death to exile.
These short early scenes – prefigured by a wordless, visually stunning opener in which the 12 future women of the jury go about their work silently within the prison-like grid of Bunnie Christie’s starkly stunning set – are just the warm-up.
The meat of the play lies in two extremely lengthy deliberation scenes, in which the women are locked away in a huge stately room with Sally and asked to decide whether she should live or die.
These scenes are so stratospherically ambitious and all-encompassing that it’s difficult to know where to begin. For starters, Kirkwood has pulled off the trick of dropping 13 characters on you, all at once. They are, intentionally, a dazzling, bickering, clashing spectrum of humanity and womanhood, from Haydn Gwynne’s cultivated toff Charlotte and Cecilia Noble’s terminally disapproving Emma to wilder cases, like Brigid Zengeni’s Sarah, who hasn’t spoken in 20 years since she saw… something, or Ayesha Kala’s hilariously, defiantly dim bulb Peg.
Their conversation – forceful, darkly comic individual lines that wilfully defy dialogue convention – is very Churchillian and the dinner party scene from ‘Top Girls’ feels like an influence.
Sometimes, this production from regular Churchill collaborator James Macdonald coalesces into gloriously crazy shapes: there’s a remarkable, unforgettable tableau in which 11 of the women sit in a circle praying while Sally tries awkwardly to take a piss in a bucket and Peake’s Elizabeth rhapsodises away, keen to save Sally’s life but useless at assisting her in the business of weeing. Later, the 12 jurors stand in a stylised human wall to shield Sally – a woman who several of them think should die – from the eyes of Mr Coombes while a doctor examines her.
As the play wears on, it feels like Kirkwood conducts bizarre social experiments on her characters, putting them through all manner of scenarios, as fiery feminist courtroom drama rubs up against thoughtful considerations of class and fertility, rubbing up against macabre magical realism, rubbing up against schlocky country house whodunnit, rubbing up against a weirdly throwaway bit where they all sing Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’.
The play is relentlessly interesting, but for me it’s the dependence on melodramatic reveals to advance the plot that ultimately sinks ‘The Welkin’ a bit, It’s hard to think Kirkwood doesn’t know what she’s doing, but the effect is off-puttingly bathetic.
An extremely talented cast do almost sell it to you, mind. Zmitrowicz is absolutely terrific as the sardonic, snarling Sally, who seems to have inexplicably stepped out of polite human society, thrilling in her total lack of inhibition. Biggest name Peake gets saddled with the most earnest and least rewarding part in the play, and struggles to impose herself beyond the role of straight woman. But there are rich pickings for the rest of the cast, who are essentially all great; endlessly flexible NT regular Noble is probably the pick of the bunch with her parsimonious hypocrite Emma.
Kirkwood tries something new with each play: ‘The Welkin’ is a world away from her much safer last NT show, ‘Mosquitoes’. It doesn’t work as well, but it tries to do so much more, and there’s a magnificence in its muddle.