Richard Lutz watches a vintage performance in Stratford.
It is almost 30 years since the Swan Theatre in Stratford opened its doors. It was bolted on to the old RSC main production house and its aim was to produce plays linked to Shakespeare, his times and his contemporaries.
I was a young reporter then and was there to tell TV viewers what they got for their money. The star of the opening play, Philip Franks, leaned over the wooden gallery for the interview and explained how it replicated a lot of theatres of the early 17th century.
You can lean against the rails and peer down, he said, or you could sit back in comfort. Or, if the play was a dud, let your eyes wander around the handsome vertical structure you and the other 450 members of the audience had (hopefully) filled up. Maybe you could pick out a familiar face or a famous celeb. The theatre was an instant success.
In the time since it opened in 1986, Jeremy Irons swung from a buccaneer’s halyards in The Rover; Michael Sher did a Macbeth that never stopped for breath and the company staged a great two part Canterbury Tales that still makes me smile. Plus, on a more modern note, Ian Dury of the Blockheads did his bit of straight acting there, Eddie Izzard brought the house down, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall filled the stage.
I have also seen my share of duds, misconceived stuff that comes with the package of seeing live theatre where a ‘good idea’ is absolute nonsense once it’s launched onto a thrust stage. But in all, part of the enjoyment is walking into The Swan for a production that cannot hide. Those tiered galleries crowd around the stage and its actors.
And so on to the current production- The Witch of Edmonton – a Jacobean three hander. No, not the number of actors but the trio of writers who banged it out late in King James’ reign – Rowley, Dekker and Ford.
With three quills scratching away, it is a bit of a rambler. Dame Eileen Atkins is a lonely old woman. And in the late reign of demonologist King James (he had a penchant for witch trials) that meant you were automatically the devil’s handmaiden. If your corn was diseased, it was the witch’s fault. If your child was ill, it was her fault. If your clothes didn’t fit right, well, you get the idea.
Bullied, hated and feared, Atkin’s character, Mother Sawyer, hooks up with Lucifer himself, in the dog-like shape of actor Jay Simpson, to hound the good folk of the village of Edmonton who plagued her.
Atkins is a fine actress and each of her lines – too few, by the way – are acerbic, wry, cutting. This is dark comedy indeed, especially when the old woman becomes a wee bit too attracted to the black hound that carries out her devilish wishes.
But with three writers, you get three plays. There is the old women, there is the murderous tale of the unhappy couple (has to be bloodsoaked John Ford) and the light hearted country bumpkin line of attack where a group of Morris dancers lead a crazed jig once the doggish devil gets ahold of the fiddle.
This is the last part of the RSC’s Roaring Girls season and I am not sure where an old bullied woman, no matter how self aware or canny, really fits in. The Witch of Edmonton is of its time. So, a bit of a museum piece. But perfect for The Swan which is the right venue for this dark dark comedy of passion, mindless hatred and hellish revenge. The star of the show, even with Dame Eileen, is the theatre itself, The Swan of Stratford.
Until 29th November. Tickets: 0844 800 1114