The Borders-based Firebrand Theatre have a strong track record of staging good-quality Scottish repertory productions, and with the producing weight of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s summer ensemble behind them, this revival of Rona Munro’s 2009 contemporary classic is elevated a level.
A period piece which refers back to the 18th century, it tells of Janet Horne, the last woman to be burned as a witch in Scotland, in Dornoch in Sutherland. Told in two discrete acts, the first sees Deirdre Davis’ Janet comfortable and confident in her power, using her persuasive personality and sexual attraction to deflect her irate neighbour Douglas (Alan Steele) and the repressed local sheriff David Ross (David Rankine).
By midway the tables have turned, and the sexually embarrassed Ross is playing a revenge game against the imprisoned Janet under the guise of upholding the law, roping Douglas and the pious and ineffective local reverend (Graham Mackay-Bruce) into her torture in hope of extracting a confession of witchcraft.
Fiona Wood plays Helen Horne, the daughter who fears herself tainted by magic, and Helen Logan is Elspeth, Douglas’ wife, who dare not speak out. As Nick, the saturnine stranger on the road, Alan Mirren introduces an element of darkly fated supernatural possibility to this perfectly devised piece.
Ken Harrison’s set is gorgeously effective, a kind of clamshell-shaped combination of tilted circular stage and a huge, moon-shaped screen opening out from it, and Richard Baron’s direction makes the most of the perfectly-weighted script. Its thematic heart, of a strong woman being bullied and abused into silence by insecure men, is well-realised and sadly remains strikingly relevant.