City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

The Last Witch, Traverse Theatre, Review


By Erin Roche - Posted on 11 November 2018

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Show Details
Venue: 
Traverse Theatre
Company: 
Pitlochry Festival Theatre in association with Firebrand Theatre Company
Production: 
Rona Munro (writer), Richard Baron (director), Ken Harrison (set and costume design), Douglas McBride photography), Wayne Dowdeswell (lighting designer), Jon Beales (composer), Chris Stuart-Wilson (choreographer), Raymond Short (fight director), Kay Hesford (stage manager), Liz Howarth (assistant stage manager),
Performers: 
Dierdre Davis (Janet Horne), Fiona Wood (Helen Horne), Alan Mirren (Nick), Graham Mackay-Bruce (Reverend Niall), Alan Steele (Douglas Begg), Helen Logan (Elspeth Begg), David Rankine (Captain David Ross)

Fire sets upon the small Scottish village of Dornoch in 1727 as Janet Horne is burned, the last witch in Scotland executed. Janet Horne is a fiery, albeit quick-tempered, woman with imagination and experiences far greater than her small town can provide, and so she feels tethered to her place and her poverty by her daughter and by her circumstances. She holds the power of insight and of a sharp tongue and possesses the talent of persuasion, namely by striking fear in her neighbors, convincing them that her abilities can breathe life and death into their livestock and their hearts. But is this magic real or manufactured? Do the church and state bring Janet to her end for her powers or for her pride?

This gripping thriller in two acts opens with an eerie liturgical choir, a foreboding of the religious overtones that inevitably take Janet Horne to her final moments upon the pyre. But, this is no Crucible . The themes in Rona Munro’s The Last Witch play upon female sexuality, mothers and daughters, and the notion of power, and what happens when a woman is seen to hold too much of it.

Ken Harrison’s set is mesmerising, a gigantic full moon shining down on cracked earth, both equal spheres tilting towards the other. His costumes have the same effect, the crimson of Janet’s dress revealing her inner passion as well as her fate. Janet’s otherworldly passion is barely contained by magnetic Deirdre Davis, who is enveloping and bouyant as the play’s protagonist. She exudes the seizing, sexual and formidable nature of Janet, balancing the dialogue, humour and rich poetry of the script to illustrate a woman that is both believable and magical. Ginger-haired Fiona Wood as Helen is formidable in her own right, communicating the physical deformities of Janet’s daughter without under- or overstating them, all the while making you wonder whether she did, in fact, call the devil and whether she could actually be the last, and real, witch of Scotland.

Atmospheric and melodic music resound from instruments played offstage and harmonies befitting the rafters on a Sunday echo around the piece, the effects conjuring up images of battles, rolling waves, the wind through moonlit fields. If you came expecting a spectacle, you will be satisfied.

Billed as “ambiguous,” The Last Witch certainly delivers on that promise; there are no answers for you as to whether or not there are any witches counted among this tale. While there is plenty of magic to behold, the story, written in 2009 yet fiercely relevant to today’s silencing of women, endeavors to ask why a man’s word can be held to higher esteem than a woman’s life, especially if that woman fits the description of outspoken spitfire. Rona Munro’s bewitching script captures a world and a woman that are both wholly realised, visceral even, while shifting in and out of rich poetic passages that serve not only to show the colour and meaning, but also mysticism, of 18th century Scotland. While Janet Horne professes that, with magic, “the words aren’t the charm,” for this piece, they certainly are. I had shivers when I left, but I’m not was from the rain coming down outside the Traverse.

Nov 7- 10

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