Lucy Kirkwood – author of Chimerica and The Children – is a writer who continually tests and stretches herself. From workplace satire to butcher-shop dystopia to an intense promenade piece about sex trafficking, her plays are sometimes messy, but always vivid in their world-building.
The Welkin is one of her most headily ambitious works to date, admirably large in scale. Set in rural Suffolk in the 1759, it tells the story of a young woman, Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz), who, along with her lover, has been charged with the brutal murder of a girl. Sentenced to hang, she pleads her belly, which if true means she would instead be transported to the colonies. A jury of 12 ‘matrons’ is tasked with determining whether she is genuinely pregnant. Locked in a room together, denied food, water or flame, with a crowd baying outside, they must come to a unanimous decision about Sally’s fate.
James Macdonald’s gripping production opens with a striking, back-lit tableau in which the women are shown engaging in various kinds of labour: sewing, cooking and nursing.
After a few introductory scenes, the action shifts to the austere jury room. The women are from different classes and backgrounds. There’s Maxine Peake’s compassionate midwife Elizabeth Luke, who brought Sally into this world and plays the Henry Fonda role in this room of 12 conflicted women; Haydn Gwynne’s well-to-do out-of-town widow Charlotte; Cecilia Noble’s snobby Emma; Jenny Galloway’s menopausal Judith, who suggests keeping a bit of brick under your pillow as an improvised contraceptive method.
The reverence and terror with which society treats women’s bodies is a thread that runs through the play. The Welkin – another term for the firmament – takes place at time when childbirth was shifting from the domain of women to something medicalised, encapsulated by a scene in which the doctor brought in to examine Sally whips out a fearsome instrument that looks a bit like an egg-whisk and proceeds to use it on her.
Bunny Christie’s set consists of a stark, grey box edged in white light; the costumes, also grey, denote class and status until they become begrimed with soot, smudging the lines between the women.
Peake is superb, but it’s a true ensemble piece. Everyone contributes and Zmitrowicz’s Sally burns hot at the heart of it all: she’s spiky, hostile and abhors pity. A scene in which she desperately tries to have a piss while shackled as the women pray for guidance is both disarmingly funny and shocking to watch.
While the first half is beautifully calibrated, tight as a high wire, things slacken a bit in the second half, as Kirkwood layers on revelation after revelation, but there remains something thrilling about the way the play strains against its frame.
Though it loses momentum towards the end and some of the accents wander all over the place, this audacious play’s strength lies in the richly textured picture it paints of these women and their lives, their relationship to their bodies and each other.