It was 30th July 2016 and crowds were flocking to see a play. Sorcery, suspicion, darkness and death, interspersed with gymnastic twirls and archaic words. The world premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre, London? No, the Bideford Witches at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter.
This play concerns the accusing, trial and eventual hanging of Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards. Charged with witchcraft, they were executed in Heavitree, Exeter in 1682. Along with Temperance Lloyd (hanged 1682) and Alice Molland (hanged 1685) they were the last people to be executed for witchcraft in England.
With the audience seated in-the-round, it begins with three women sat on the floor staring at a screen. Through this we witness the silhouetted hanging of Temperance Lloyd. The characters then introduce themselves through a series of short monologues, accompanied by the sorts of limb movement that can best be described as contemporary. Thereby setting the tone for the remainder of the show.
Mary and Susannah, the two beggar girls. Grace Thomas, the incessantly coughing victim of Temperance Lloyd. Joan Jones, the rabble-rousing villager, forever stirring suspicion through gossip. And William Herbert, a farmer whose crop failed after Mary was seen on his land.
In an early scene Grace collapses when talking to Mary and rumours quickly spread that she has been cursed. It is assumed that as Mary’s friend, and friend of the witch Temperance, Susannah is also responsible and so both are taken to Exeter for trial. Here they are variously accused of ‘giving gossip to the moths’, having an inordinate number of teats, conjuring magpies, having something living behind their teeth, as well as causing illness in Grace.
Naturally, these accusations are cast through the medium of dance: “I accuse you of being a witch!”, balletic leap and dramatic flick of the hand. Not to be outdone, when stood in the docks Mary responds with a flurry of inspired arm movements. “That ought to prove I ain’t a witch,” she seems to think.
There is hope they might be let off due to their impoverished state. However, fate and ‘the greater good’ intervene, and it was decided they would be executed anyway to prevent civil unrest. The play ends with the hanging of Mary and Susannah, and the final heartbeat being one last coughing fit from Grace. Proof that the witches were not the cause of her illness.
For this adaptation of the Bideford witches’ tale we can thank High Wall Theatre company, the self-declared specialists in telling stories through movement. Pointed hats off to them and their movements. The actors would stride across the stage exchanging pointed toes and dialogue, before leaping gaily into each others’ arms and exiting stage left. I found this somewhat distracting but perhaps I need to get out more.
On a set with no stage props the actors themselves became the props. Without the pirouettes it probably would have been oddly staccato and dull. And despite the overall bizarre feel, the story was ever grounded in a dark human reality. Albeit a reality in which people are prone to link hands and dance a spontaneous waltz when saying something profound. Just to be more, you know, compelling.
The shortness of the play and the intimacy of the setting enhanced the audience’s horror for these poor women dragged to their deaths by scapegoating. I recommend it to anyone with the ability to go back in time and see it.