National Theatre, London ★★★★✩
THERE’S magic and mystery, death and desire in Lucy Kirkwood’s gripping new play, starring Maxine Peake. There is also domestic drudgery, and the stink and ache of hard lives.
In 1759 Suffolk a young woman, Sally Poppy, and her lover are convicted of the grisly murder of a wealthy family’s child. She claims to be pregnant, and if she is, she’ll be spared the hangman’s noose. Twelve local matrons must decide if she’s telling the truth. Rumours and superstitions ripple through their deliberations, witches, angels and demons hover among them, and outside the villagers scan the skies for a glimpse of Halley’s Comet.
The story’s mechanics are reminiscent of Twelve Angry Men and The Crucible, but it has its own rich fascination and is fiercely pertinent. The feminist politics around the patriarchal abuse, exploitation and incomprehension of women’s bodies are piercing. We are reminded of the ways in which our justice system continues to fail women, and the crowd baying for an execution is a horrifyingly familiar reflection of mob hate.
James Macdonald’s production, stunningly designed with painterly period details and slashes of gleaming modernity by Bunny Christie, brings past and present, and the gritty and the fantastical, into thrilling collision. Peake, as a clever, strong-willed midwife, and Ria Zmitrowicz, as enraged, defiant Sally, lead an almost entirely female ensemble packed with intricate portraits. The Suffolk accents and dialect are dense, and demand an attentive ear. It’s well worth listening, though: this is stirring drama, full of wonder, wit and fury.