Tuesday 3rd May 2022 at The Space Theatre, London
Reviewer: Maygan Forbes
What does pure inhibited rage look like when it’s not diluted in a world full of takers? Abigail brings to the stage the true life character of Abigail Williams, one of the first afflicted girls in the Salem Witch Trials. A brave and experimental approach from writers Stephen Gillard and Laura Turner, Abigail is a bewitching and clever play that explores the thin line between anger and acceptance.
The play begins with sisters Abigail (played by Laura Turner) and Mercy (played by Lucy Sheree Cooper) on the run from the Salem Witch Trial. From the offset it is clear Abigail is placed in a maternal role as she guides the easily led and impressionable Mercy into a boarding house. During the course of their stay in the house, Abigail is forced to reckon with her past and confront the demons that follow her. In the first half of the play, we are introduced to Milly (played by Sarah Isbell) who later on becomes a key component to the story. This is a play about ego, sexuality, guilt and redemption; The frivolity of man are distractions from the forbidden desires that haunt Abigail’s waking moments.
The play is littered with psychological themes that are ingeniously interwoven throughout, this isn’t just a retelling of Abigail’s life – this is a story of the ugliness and the beauty that lurk around us. The boarding house, ruled under a heavy thumb by Mrs Constance (played by Sophie Kamal), is depicted as Abigail’s first obstacle. Kamal is wonderful in this role, wildly hilarious and well played. Think Miss Hannigan from Annie, Mrs Constance is pompous and self-absorbed. She is concerned about one thing and one thing only: money, and she shows little to no integrity on how to obtain it. But Mrs Constance is the least of Abigail’s worries and as the play continues, it is exposed to the audience the the evil that lurks in sheep’s clothing.
Abigail is daring and adventurous but her lack of courage and bravery eventually starts to creep into her milieu. The play toys with the notion of integrity and the balances of power that dangle over women, which at any given moment has the capacity to snap. As an audience member, it becomes apparent that we are watching the origins of some characters demise.There are several trigger warnings in the play however nothing can prepare you for the horrific rape and assault shown on stage. It marks a transition in Mercy’s character and Cooper is gripping and daring as she embraces this shift in character.
My only criticism of the play was the racism displayed on stage. This was a theme that was listed as a trigger warning so the audience are made aware of what to expect. However I felt it was flippantly thrown in and disregarded. Mrs Constance is the character who faces racist abuse at the hands of Abigail – it is something that comes quite late in the play and is dropped in almost unnecessarily. I understand it highlights Abigail as a deeply flawed human being however it felt like a superficial anecdote that wasn’t developed on. I do feel like it is the responsibility of the writers to safeguard the audience when trigger warning themes appear however it felt passive. This is a play that highlights shifting power – it is clear Mrs Constance holds a very specific type of power over all the other women on stage, however this is deemed obsolete after Abigail refers to her as a “black ram”.
Throughout the play women are labelled as “common whores” and treated as subordinates. Gillard and Turner explore a spectrum of violence towards women: the use of brute physical force, verbal abuse and psychological damage. They show that violence appears in sometimes the most disguised formats and can happen in and amongst women themselves, but also that women hold the key for the to enact authority amongst themselves also. Jack (James Green) is the handsome, charming knight who vigorously throws himself into Abigail and Mercy’s world under the guise of care and kindness. His intentions appear innocent however the extent to his manipulation is yet to be witnessed on stage. Through coercive control, his character becomes an unbearable force who looms around every corner.
Without spoiling too much, Jack is the physical embodiment of the evil that surrounds women, the threat to our power and sexual liberation. Abigail is enchanted by his potential to save her from herself however some things you cannot run from. The looming threat of guilt has Abigail in a chokehold and floods her conscience.
The act of sex is another aspect that is executed well in this play. At the start the audience are introduced to the causal nature of prostitution at the boarding house however it is apparent it is a purely male dominated act. Women receive minimal to no pleasure from engaging in it, it is a means to an end.
During one scene, Milly appears bored and apathetic as she bends over for a visiting punter. She later on exclaims “what else is a girl like me good for?”. The beatings and the nonchalant abuse, it is so ingrained in the fabric of their world – they don’t know anything else. A life outside of living as a pleasurable object to man is hard to challenge and begs the question, will women always be at the mercy of men? Societies belief that sex is tied into “becoming” a woman is also assumed in the world on stage as Mercy’s sexual assault is viewed upon by Jack as her rite of passage and evolution into a commodity.
This is an incredibly complex play that I thoroughly enjoyed. The acting is brilliant, every character delivers their own story in a way that leaves you hankering for more. Directed by Steven Gillard, the stage was simple yet effective and the audience are plunged into the New England world. For 2 hours you forget about the happenings outside, it is almost cinematic and each scene is full of thrill with lurking suspense haunting every corner.