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Review: The Welkin, at National Theatre

Maxine Peake leads a jury of 12 angry women in courtroom drama that explores the female experience

06 February, 2020 — By Sipora Levy

Maxine Peake in The Welkin. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

LUCY Kirkwood has written an ambitious, large-scale, historical courtroom drama, which is curiously reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s film Twelve Angry Men.

Here we have 12 angry women locked in a room in rural Suffolk to decide the fate of Sally Poppy (an electrifying Ria Zmitrovic), an unfaithful wife who has been accused of murdering a child.

It is 1759, a time of upheaval in England and Halley’s Comet is passing overhead. Her plea is pregnancy, which would save her from the gallows. A lesser sentence would send her to one of the colonies.

The jury is led by Maxine Peake, excellent as the level-headed midwife Elizabeth Luke, who not only delivered Sally but is convinced of her pregnancy. The other women are divided in their verdict but present an interesting cross-section of womanhood, in terms of age, class and race.

These are complex roles for actors, who need to grapple with a strong Norfolk accent as well as archaic speech. Haydn Gwynne as the aristocratic widow Charlotte, Cecilia Noble as snobbish and bored Emma and Jenny Galloway as Judith (who suggests that keeping a brick under the pillow is an effective contraceptive) are most memorable.

Dealing as it does with the female experience – childbirth, menstruation, menopause and housework – Kirkwood shines a light on those forgotten women whose voices were rarely heard, and whose behaviour was often labelled as hysterical or criminal.

The set and lighting by Bunny Christie and Lee Curran respectively, create visually stunning tableaux, that evoke paintings by 18th century Dutch masters.

Although James Macdonald directs at a lively pace, the play could do with some editing, as the first few scenes are rather flat. At almost three hours, the evening feels slightly too long.

The Welkin will be broadcast to cinemas as part of NT Live on May 23.

Until May 23
020 7452 3000

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