Saturday 22nd February 2020 at the National Theatre, London.
The Welkin is a fantastic example of past and present colliding. Lucy Kirkwood’s new play offers harsh realities, intelligent light relief and dramatic revelations to leave craters in the stage. Educating and entertaining as much as it interrogates and grips, we are presented with shifting dynamics and complex questions leading a riveting dance for the duration.
Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) is a convict ‘claiming the belly’. Convicted and awaiting hanging, she must now engage with a system which refuses to hang a woman pregnant with ‘quick child’…so long as it’s judged valid. Twelve matrons provide an incongruous jury; they are to place the pregnancy claim on trial rather than the initial crime – that remains the domain of men, naturally. Because who better to judge morality than the patriarchy and who better to judge the legitimacy of a pregnancy than those who are forced to consider procreation a duty and two thirds of their identity?
Director James Macdonald keeps us hooked in this comfortless cage of judgement despite a running time which feels ever so slightly over-long despite the talent on display. Maxine Peake and Zmitrowicz lead as Elizabeth and Sally and theirs is a tense, terse and often gruelling connection which shifts almost constantly. Zmitrowicz is fantastically puzzling as Sally. Her villainy and sense of hell-bent irreverence make for powerful viewing and it’s a performance which piercingly questions our expectations of young women both then and now. Peake’s performance accosts us with Elizabeth’s vehement defence of any life in peril. The constancy towards Sally approaches unfathomable and there’s a good deal of tightly wound ambiguity about this woman so desperate to help such a deeply ungrateful and oftentimes vicious individual.
Central characters are generously supported by a canny cross-section of women too and it’s an accomplished, extensive cast by all accounts. Across ages, ideals and backgrounds, we see clashes and conformity at play throughout as Elizabeth appeals to every kind of sensibility and Sally perilously refuses to engage.
We meet young Peg (Aysha Kala) who offers the ostentatiously embroidered view on pregnancy and marriage. But Kirkwood swiftly offers a remedy to that idealism via Judith (Jenny Galloway) who is a Brilliant representative for the older woman’s experience, walking us through the throes of hot flushes and worldly wisdom with both humour and pathos.
Mary (Zainab Hasan) may win no awards for her brain power but she’s a walking poster girl for graft and duty. Meanwhile Helen (Wendy Kweh) brings real tragedy to the piece with a back story and a performance which surely must move everyone. Emma (Cecilia Noble) and Kitty (Dawn Sievewright) provide some sharp comedy, with Emma not taking kindly to being duped into reverence while Kitty reserves reverence for few to none, preferring instead to live life with entertaining directness.
And the territory is as defining as the politics at play. Set between Norfolk and Suffolk in 1759, we find before us instantaneous implications in terms of gender and class. The accents and dialects are paraded as meaningfully as Bunny Christie’s superb opening visual in which the life of labour led by these women precedes any introduction to their individualities. Their roles are restrictive and prescribed by the time and place and we are swiftly ushered from visions of daily toil to an enclosed space in which values and perceptions are to be dissected for the woman whose life and pregnancy are walking question marks.
It’s also a great vote of confidence in the work as written and performed when a set remains static and unmoving for much of the performance and with no detrimental impact. The intensity of the piece lies in the enclosure of the space and situation. Perhaps above all though, it’s fascinating to see a piece which fearlessly paints a picture of a woman with so little to connect with. Her redeeming features are microscopic while her ferociousness and apparent lack of humanity paint a feral picture an eighteenth century collective of women can only gape at. Kirkwood thereby provides a study of what it means to judge an individual on the basis of gender expectations alongside expectations of the young and the impoverished. My only gripe is that while the closing moments are suitably shocking, the very final act of the play (without giving too much away) may feel rather familiar for some…
As a timely and resonant study of gender, class and age, Kirkwood’s play engages with historical gravity, offers probing and broad representation of women’s lives and is brought to life by a superb collective of talented women. Definitely recommended viewing.
The Welkin plays the National Theatre until 23rd May 2020 and you can find tickets here.