Monday, August 24, 2009

"The Last Witch" - Edinburgh International Festival 2009

This first bit is confusing so please pay attention at the back... "The Last Witch" by Rona Munro is being staged by the Traverse Theatre Company and directed by Traverse Artistic Director Dominic Hill - but isn't being staged at (major Fringe venue) the Traverse Theatre. Instead it's part of the Edinburgh International Festival and is being staged just round the corner at the Royal Lyceum. Everyone got that? As a result of this combination it's very much a flagship piece for both the EIF and the Traverse so there's a lot of interest in this one...

Next, a bit of housekeeping. While it usually falls to me write up our thoughts on the shows we see, it's only after Waldorf and I have compared notes. And we've always had the policy that if she's enjoyed a show considerably more than I have, she'll be the one to put pen to paper. Now, "The Last Witch" has caused a significant division of opinion this evening, but as Waldorf prefers to take her time over things, we might have to wait a while for her thoughts ("White Tea" comments now one week and counting). But given the short run and likely interest in the production we'd rather not keep you waiting - so I'll do my best to fairly reflect her thoughts on the show.

I'd avoided reading much about the play in advance but Rona Munro has cleverly taken things down a less obvious route than I expected. Set in northern Scotland in 1727 it focuses on Janet Horne who finds herself accused of witchcraft, but this isn't a familiar tale of hysteria and paranoia. Here Horne is a self proclaimed witch who boasts of her abilities to her daughter and neighbours. Being essentially a wee wifey with a big mouth she quickly had Waldorf very much on side, but for me it killed any sympathy I had for the character there and then - in my book if you talk yourself up like that with a load of nonsense you have to be prepared for the consequences if you run into someone daft enough to believe you (or use your ramblings against you). My liberal sentiments were pricking my conscience that this could be an allegory for those in the present day who talk themselves up as extremists and then find themselves at the sharp end of terrorism charges, but I still felt nothing as she burned.

Waldorf liked Munro's biting dialogue, but it didn't always work for me. I thought the sparks flew in the scenes between Janet (Kathryn Howden) and local Sheriff (Andy Clark) and also in the moments between daughter Helen (Hannah Donaldson) and Nick (Ryan Fletcher) but for much of the rest of the time I found the dialogue seemed to drag on - with too much standing around waiting for characters to finish. Waldorf didn't feel this was a problem and particularly liked the dynamic created between the three female characters - Janet, Helen and neighbour Elspeth (Vicki Liddelle)

For a production that has clearly had a lot of time and effort thrown at it, I didn't think it was particularly put to good use on stage. In fact I reckoned that it could have been staged just as effectively in the Traverse's small studio theatre (albeit without the same size of audience). The on-stage musical accompaniment seemed out of place and the video elements and soundscape were unimpressive. And don't get me started on the use of the fluorescent strip lights!

In Waldorf's book this was an enjoyable evening but for me it was decent at best - certainly not deserving of its flagship status.

The Last Witch runs at the Royal Lyceum until 29th August and their website indicates all performances are currently sold out.
Image by Robbie Jack used with permission

2 Heckles

Waldorf said...

This cause a bit of a debate in the car back to Glasgow. I think Statler is being unduly harsh here. I'm interested if it's a male/female divide.

As he's said above I feel the dynamic between the three women is the powerful thing about this piece. Rona Munro has Janet Horne as a victim (obviously so if you end up getting burned for being a witch). But she's a victim on her own terms at the end. She's a woman who's seen a world wider than her croft in Dornoch, was widowed young and is raising a child with a disability.

OK, she's also a mouthy cow, shies away from hard work and at times an abusive mother but nobody's perfect.

With regards the set my biggest issue was the dip in the centre meant that from our seats at the front I couldn't see anything that took place on the ground in that dip.

Anonymous said...

Thought the cast were superb. Not a weak leak. Wish we had a proper National Theatre. Not sure what the whole play was trying to say - other than a warning against opening your big mouth in the wrong place at the wrong time.