The Last Witch (5 stars)

This article is from 2009

The Last Witch

Sensual story of power and the state

Beneath its bare story there’s something far more complex at work in Rona Munro’s new piece for the Traverse and the EIF. This re-imagining of the true, though factually sketchy, demise of Janet Horne, a Dornoch woman executed for witchcraft in 1727 and the last person to die on such a charge in the UK by 60 years, has as its subtext a contemporary Foucault-style examination of the workings of power, from that of the individual, to that wielded by the mighty apparatus of state.

Munro’s Janet (Kathryn Howden) proves to be an awkward and curmudgeonly woman, with an earthy kind of sex appeal, and a mildly deformed teenage daughter (Hannah Donaldson) who she treats with, alternately, brutality and tenderness. The arrival of a new, ambitious and rather embittered sheriff (Andy Clark) reignites a feud with Janet’s neighbours (George Anton, Vicki Liddelle), and, as a pusillanimous local minister (Neil McKinven) wrings his hands, things spiral into a state-sanctioned violence that makes victims of its entire community. All the while, a character who may or may not be the devil (Ryan Fletcher) makes the odd intervention.

Dominic Hill’s production, in Naomi Wilkinson’s bear pit-cum-barn of a set, cunningly disguises a forensic examination of hierarchy, custom and hegemony beneath the rich sensuality of Munro’s language. Wilkinson’s peasant and townie costumes contrast with Simon Smith’s harpsichordist in periwig, which reminds us of a new world of sham civilisation that dispassionately judges events. There is a vast amount in this text about how we create and lose opportunities to empower ourselves outwith the traditional structures of authority, and also of the ultimate brutal power of the mechanisms of state once we are forced to place ourselves into pigeon holes created by language and the law.

Most fascinating of all, in a text that veers with admirable deftness between black comedy and political tragedy are some tremendous character studies. Howden is simply stunning, measuring her character’s awareness of sexuality and its capacity to traduce orthodox hierarchies against her intemperate desire to test boundaries to perfection. So too, Clark’s arrogant, desperately insecure career man – all superego in flight from id – suggests, brilliantly, the kind of modern manager with lots of flash but no life that anyone might recognise. Donaldson has a trickier role as the frail teenager beginning to explore unorthodox ways out, but achieves strong results, while McKinven’s supercilious humanitarian, the model of a modern liberal who’ll side with hawkish laws when the chips are down, creates yet another echo of modern life. Indeed, the piece is universally well-performed and ingeniously realised. An engrossing entertainment of the highest order.

Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, until 29 Aug, 7.30pm (27 & 29 2.30pm), £10–£25.

The Last Witch

  • 5 stars

Preview of a new play about the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland, performed by the Edinburgh International Festival and Traverse Theatre Company.

The Last Witch

The world premiere of leading Scottish playwright Rona Munro's work based on the historical account of the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland. A co-production between the Edinburgh International Festival and the Traverse Theatre. Supported by Edinburgh International Festival Science Consortium.