The name Jane Wenham may not mean much to you, but her place in English history is entirely unique: she was one of the last women in England to be convicted of witchery. And BAFTA-winning writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play tells her extraordinary story.
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is a gripping and haunting play about sex, fear, religion and magic, inspired by one of the last major witch trials in England. The charges brought against Jane Wenham, the cunning woman of a small Hertfordshire village, provoked a nationwide pamphlet war. After decades free from witch hunts, Jane is blamed for a tragic death – and charged with witchcraft. A terrifying ordeal begins, as the village is torn between those who want to save her life, and those who claim to want to save her soul.
“The play looks at the persecution and oppression of women, and the ways in which the accusation of witchery was used to keep a control over women in the 1600s, when the witch-hunts were at their height,” explains director Ria Parry. “Fear was still rife, even though opinions were starting to divide on its existence. The church had a huge role in the persecutions; for some, communications with the devil went hand in hand with being a witch, and if a woman was thought to have done something wrong – or caused something bad to happen – it was usually thought to have been triggered by that individual serving the devil rather than god.
“A pact with the devil was often linked to having sexual relations with the devil – so sex, fear and religion are intertwined in many ways in the play. The devil or some form of bewitchment was often blamed for abusive actions towards women – ‘the devil was in her.’ Terrible excuses for terrible behaviour.”
Sex, it seems, is everywhere in Walkern. “The Reverend is a virgin and can’t work out why he is attracted to the Widow when he knows that lust is a sin; Ann has a complicated and destructive relationship with men, but is attracted to a girl in the village; Priddy and Bridget think that the devil has visited them in the form of a man asking for sex; and it’s rumoured that the Bishop is sleeping with his housekeeper. Jane is actually the only one who tries to stay out of trouble.”
One of the play’s attractions, Ria continues, is its resonance with issues we are still facing today. “The witch-hunts were a cruel, oppressive part of our history, and unfortunately they still resonate with events occurring worldwide today. Fear breeds hatred; when people don’t understand something, they join a ‘side’ to feel safe… and it becomes ‘us and them.’ A suspicion of ‘difference’ – or a zealous belief in one’s own views, at the expense of anyone else’s – can only end in conflict and persecution. We are living through a horrible amount of oppressive, extreme behaviours. Rebecca’s play is set in 1712 but it ripples through to 2015 too easily.”
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is at the Factory Theatre from Tuesday, November 3 to Saturday, November 7. For more info, to view a teaser and to book tickets, visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/detail/jane_wenham_the_witch_of_walkern