The Witch of Edmonton, written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford in 1621, is a patchy, crudely paced and slightly confusing example of Jacobean drama, but it is not without its merits, which are illustrated in this quality production in the Swan Theatre, directed by Gregory Doran. The play was inspired by real-life events: Elizabeth Sawyer was hanged for witchcraft in 1621 after supposedly being visited by a demon in the shape of a dog called Tom.
Eileen Atkins is wonderful as Mother Sawyer: hunched up and frail, she is bitter and sardonic, angry at the treatment she receives from the village and driven to witchcraft only because she has been accused of it. The authors’ examination of why witchcraft accusations happen and what they mean to society is profound and surprisingly modern, and I only wish there had been more of it.
Sadly, when Atkins is offstage, the play is less compelling. I did like the story of Frank Thorney (Ian Bonar), who marries Susan Carter for her dowry despite already being married to Winnifride (Shvorne Marks), then proceeds to murder his second wife. However, despite the presence of the demon-dog (Jay Simpson), its connection to Mother Sawyer’s story is loose – unless the play aims to make the point that Frank’s bigamy and murder can more readily be forgiven than her witch antics.
I loved the set, with its atmospheric woodland backdrop, and as a production the piece was a strong one. Yet the play as a whole is too uneven to be truly impressive.