The Last Witch – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer: Rona Munro

Director: Richard Baron

Janet Horne, the last woman to be legally executed in the British Isles, arrested in Dornoch Scotland is the subject of Rona Munro’s The Last Witch. Alone with her claw-handed daughter, Janet fends for the pair in the Highlands. Her charms, herbal remedies and manipulation tricks those into offering scraps of food or fuel for the fires. Though more so out of pity than fear. Soon though, the Church and State become involved in suspicions of sorcery. Janet’s silver tongue, physical liberties and a young sheriff determined to prove his merit, lead to an unholy accusation.

Sliced, stripped bare of all but it’s roots, Rona Munro’s revival at the Traverse as part of its Autumn season, differs from its 2009 debut. Maintaining aspects of those visual effects, projected to the moon above – it has lost all of the overly elaborate mechanics it once had. Kept to an aesthetically bare design, the bark of the trees stretching into the cold stone below.

Sexually assertive, charming and independently, if stubbornly willed, Janet spends the first act as the master of a chess board. Every piece set in motion. Her wiles keep the repressed Sheriff at arm’s length (closer if desired), though also her daughter pinned down to her mother’s land. Deirdre Davis’ Janet is sharp-tongued, almost with a venomous bite. Yet more so, her desperation in her ability to convince others is what makes her appealing to watch.

Contrasting her snake oil beguile, Janet’s daughter Helen has a differing fate to her real counterpart. In Munro’s telling Helen (Fiona Wood) creeps the line of aether closer than her mother without realising. Scenes with Alan Mirren as a Mephistophelean traveller Nick, a tinkerer who seems to travel only by moonlight, his appearances drawing out the occult feel we crave from the production.

In particular, the scenes these two share highlights the set design of Ken Harrison. The cracked, vein-like structure of a roundtable serves as wildlands, church tower and pyre. These cracks stem across the stage emitting light – cold or fiery dependant on the situation. A raked stage, the two circles echo the skies and the earth. One a harvest moon, filled with enchantment, deviousness and an ethereal glow. The other cold, broken and venting the fresh steam from the heartless stone.

Chastised, tortured mentally and physically by meek minded men into a confession – a sturdy charismatic woman keeps her dignity amidst the stench of masculinity. Yielding not to the insecurities of man but the depth of her motherhood. All too tragic is that in the final moments, as the men cower, avert their gaze or turn their backs altogether to an innocent. It is a lone woman, Janet’s neighbour who has the stomach to meet her eye. Unafraid of the inspiration her words may cause, or the liberation proposed.

Munro’s The Last Witch works with the heart of a Scottish story. The language used in describing the air itself is captivating. More so, her writing has a clear comment regarding aspects of the church’s sentiments of female liberation. Graham Mackay-Bruce as the local reverend, blaming himself for failing Janet for over a decade serves as our primary fool.

One may be forgiven for not noting that the 18th-century setting could easily be substituted for today. Given the texts focus on the anxious clawing of misogyny as it grapples to tie down fierce, independent women. The pyre staked, crows cry out for vengeance, Munro reminds us that evil is not found in dancing with the devil but with those concealed behind silver buttons and smiles.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/the-last-witch-traverse-theatre-edinburgh/

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