Of Medicine And Women: The Welkin At National Theatre
“She’s a stupid, nasty, wicked wretch and I mean to save her.”
With those words, midwife Elizabeth Luke (Maxine Peake) begins her mission to rescue convicted murderer Sally Poppy from the noose.
Set somewhere on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk in 1759, this new play from Olivier Award-winning writer Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, Mosquitoes) sees a dozen matrons involuntarily assembled to act as a jury of sorts. The role of these ladies is not to judge whether Poppy was responsible for the death of the local bigwig’s daughter, but to ascertain whether the killer is pregnant. If so, Poppy will be transported; if not, the gallows await.
Luke introduces Poppy as the first baby she delivered and, from the off, staunchly defends her in the face of her fellow matrons and the rich and powerful family of the victim. As the deliberations progress and dark truths are revealed, Luke has to battle not only her peers’ assumptions, fears and secrets but also her feelings towards Poppy.
Kirkwood gives each of the matrons a brief moment in the spotlight to say something about themselves (one says “my son weighed 12 pounds when he was born but we get along fine now”) but, despite the approximately three-hour running time, little is done to meaningfully develop many of the characters. This isn’t helped by a sparse neon-lit set which spreads the audience focus for almost all of the play across 14 characters (the jury plus the accused and a court-appointed official) within the same intimidatingly bright and desolate stage-wide space.
The script is hardly bereft of hearty laughs, chiefly around the failings of men and the human anatomy, but not enough to lift a play which, under James Macdonald’s direction, moves dolorously from one harrowing and intense set scene to another; often, the humour is as low as the pace is slow. To cap it off, even though the setting is obscure, Kirkwood’s plot feels derivative and brings to mind works including Twelve Angry Men, The Wild Geese and Of Mice And Men.
The intention and ambition here is noble but this production could better serve its subject matter with a shorter, sharper and less laborious delivery.
The Welkin, National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, SE19PX. Tickets £20-£89, until 23 May 2020.
Last Updated 24 January 2020