First published in The Times, Tuesday September 18 2018
When Rona Munro’s The Last Witch debuted at the Royal Lyceum as part of the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival, the play, inspired by the true story of the last woman to be burned for heresy in Scotland, got lost in an over-the-top staging that included elaborate multimedia, sound and special effects.
Richard Baron’s production for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, in collaboration with Firebrand, is all the more menacing for its restraint. The action plays out on Ken Harrison’s simple yet visually striking open set, overhung by a large circular screen showing images that mirror and complement the action. The musical director, Jon Beales, has assembled an unnerving live soundtrack, created from rainsticks and Tibetan singing bowls, and incorporating the Georgian folk song, Tsintskaro, which is sung by members of the ensemble.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Deirdre Davis gives a strong, affecting performance as Janet Horne, who scratches out a living for herself and her daughter, Helen (Fiona Wood), as a kind of healer in Dornoch in the North East Highlands of the early 18th century. She is both feared and admired by the superstitious local community for her perceived supernatural abilities and alleged communion with the Devil.
The arrival of a new sheriff in the form of the young, fanatical and repressed Captain David Ross (a performance of simmering anger and self-loathing from David Rankine) sparks a power struggle that will eventually bring about Janet’s downfall. As she languishes in chains, it becomes apparent that her real crimes are her charisma, independence and sexual allure.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Munro seems less interested here in the clash between pre-enlightenment irrational beliefs and the logic and reasoning to come, than in the harsh realities of grinding poverty and the location of power, whatever the epoch. Her script is, at times, a frustrating mix of earthy poetry (as in the moment in which the ageless Janet, replete after seducing Rankine’s spellbound sheriff, compares herself to a berry “full of juice”) alongside some more unworthy passages of prosaic writing. We are never in much doubt about the tale’s ending, so the drama is anticlimactic, but the playwright’s depiction of the opprobrium, physical punishment and worse heaped upon a powerful woman by a terrified patriarchy has a chillingly familiar ring to it.
Baron provides an ideal balance of the concrete and the uncanny in this production. Davis is beguiling throughout, and she receives strong support from Rankine, Wood, Helen Logan as a supportive neighbour and the rest of the seven-strong ensemble.