The Witch of Edmonton, Enter the Spirit Productions at the Southwark Playhouse, London, 7th November – 2nd December, 2000

David Nicol
University of Central England

Nicol, David. "Review of The Witch of Edmonton." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 19.1-12 <URL:>.


Tom Foster (Frank Thorney); Claire Lichie (Winifred); Keith Woodason (Sir Arthur Clarington / Old Thorney / Old Ratcliffe); Brian Poyser (Old John Carter / Old Banks / Sawgut the fiddler); Morgan James (Warbeck / Countryman); Naomie Harris (Susan); Vernon Douglas (Somerton / Countryman); Lara Marland (Katherine / Anne Ratcliffe); Deirdre Doone (Mother Sawyer); Chris Garner (Cuddy Banks / Justice); Paul Panting (Dog)

Creative Team

Simon Cox (Director); Mark Anstee (Designer); Stuart Targett (Costume Designer); Simon Macer-Wright (Lighting Designer); Steven Burke (Composer); Lee Lyford (Movement Director); Laura Gregory (Stage Management)

Date seen: 25th November 2000 (matinee)

  1. The Witch of Edmonton has been much admired by scholars of early modern drama, but there have been few professional productions with which to examine how it might work in performance. The benchmark production remains Barry Kyle’s for the RSC in 1983, an archive video of which is available at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, Enter the Spirit’s fresh interpretation, staged in the round at the tiny Southwark Playhouse, was a commendable addition to the play’s stage history. Director Simon Cox elicited strong performances from his cast and found ingenious solutions to the difficulties of staging the play on a small budget. He also demonstrated the play’s vitality and stageworthiness with a production that was consistently entertaining.

  2. The most memorable performance was that of Deirdre Doone as Mother Sawyer. Doone is a tiny, delicate-looking woman, but she delivered the character’s angry speeches with great power. Her Sawyer was initially presented as a harmless eccentric. In the scenes in which she was abused by the vindictive villagers, Doone gave a moving representation of the ruffled pride of the old and slightly dotty. Her relationship with the Dog was overtly sexual, and she was touchingly besotted with him. It was implied that this was the first and only loving relationship the old woman had ever had, and Doone achieved a tragic pathos when the Dog revealed that he had betrayed her.

  3. Paul Panting took on the difficult role of the Dog. It would seem hard to improve on Miles Anderson’s terrifying performance in Kyle’s production, but Panting achieved success by approaching the role in a very different way. Eschewing anything overtly dog-like in his simple black costume, he was able to capture an impression of evil solely through the glint of malice in his eyes. He was not as frightening as Anderson, but was much better at playing a sweet and loveable puppy-dog; it was easy to see why Sawyer and Cuddy were seduced by him. Indeed, the key to Panting’s success was mercuriality; he could shift from innocent charm to cruel cynicism in an instant, and could handle easily the play’s abrupt shifts from comedy to tragedy.

  4. Tom Foster’s Frank Thorney was less complex, but still entertaining. In the play, Frank commits bigamy after his father begs him to restore the family’s fortunes by marrying Susan Carter, but Foster rejected any sympathetic readings of the character’s dilemma. He played Frank as a smirking villain who committed his crimes simply because he could. Clearly relishing the role, Foster was enjoyably cynical, his every word dripping derision for the people he deceived. But he was also very successful at changing Frank into a repentant sinner in 4.2 and 5.2.

  5. In contrast, the Cuddy Banks subplot was a disappointment. This was not entirely the fault of Chris Garner, who worked hard at giving the role energy and charm; it was rather due to a mistaken approach to Cuddy’s function. Garner’s performance was essentially naturalistic, and seeing him struggle for laughs, I felt that attention should have been paid to the speech headings in which Cuddy appears as ‘The Clown’. Cuddy often utters long strings of terrible jokes, for instance when he falls in the pond after chasing Katherine:

    This was an ill night to go a-wooing in; I find it now in Pond’s Almanac. Thinking to land at Katherine’s Dock, I was almost at Gravesend. I’ll never go to a wench in the dog-days again. (3.1.105-8)

    Garner, playing Cuddy as a naturalistically realised countryman, delivered the jokes in a breathless stream to the Dog, trying to make them sound like a plausible reaction to the situation. But this is surely a stand-up routine for the company clown; the jokes need to be delivered to the audience, and relished rather than rushed through. Too often, the comic subplot seemed to have been regarded as an encumbrance rather than a pleasure, which was a shame because there is much potential humour in Cuddy’s relationship with the Dog.

  6. Apart from the floor covering – a thick layer of bark - the play was staged economically, without large-scale props or special effects. There were occasional moments at which this caused difficulties. Cuddy’s fall into the pond (3.1) was represented by the Dog making a ‘splasssh!’ sound, and throwing bark over him, at which point one began to question the wisdom of presenting the play without even so simple a prop as a bucket of water. Another disappointment was the Morris dance; when the Dog played the fiddle, a red light shone on the cast, and the diabolic music bent and distorted them into odd positions. This was presumably meant to symbolise the Dog’s control over the characters, but it came across as a lazy way to avoid choreographing a rustic knees-up. Elsewhere, though, Cox was very successful at producing powerful effects with simple means. While the ‘spirit of Katherine’ did not appear in 3.1, a spine-chilling atmosphere was created when feminine giggles were heard behind different sections of the audience’s seating, and the bewildered Cuddy blundered around the auditorium in search of them. Other solutions were not only effective, but symbolically resonant. Scene 3.3 requires a tree for Frank to be tied to, and 4.2 requires a bed for him to sleep in. Neither was feasible in this tiny theatre, and so the Dog transformed himself into the tree, and in the bedroom scene became a pillow for Frank to lie on, thereby creating some splendid images of Frank’s false security and the Dog’s power over him.

  7. The small size of the cast necessitated a great deal of doubling. On the whole, the problems this raised were dealt with ingeniously. But there were moments at which one longed for larger numbers. Act 3, scene 4's Morris-dance is broken up by officers who arrest Warbeck and Somerton; the scene inevitably loses something when the cast can produce neither Morris-dancers nor officers.1 Cox worked hard at using swift movement and skilful choreography to make Edmonton look bustling, but the production still made me appreciate the need for a large cast with which to fully represent the interaction between the different sections of a socially stratified community.

  8. Indeed, the production’s major flaw was the absence of a strong social or cultural context for the action. One reason for this was undoubtedly the constraints of budget and space; whereas Barry Kyle was able to fill The Other Place with the paraphernalia of seventeenth-century village life, the Southwark Playhouse simply does not have the capacity for such effects. But even within these limitations, there seemed to have been no real attempt to place the action within a detailed environment. The costumes were timeless, the women wearing simple dresses, and the men wearing tunics with corduroy trousers. Many of the costumes were bright orange, an odd choice of colour that distanced the characters further from the play’s rural setting. There was a limited attempt at clarifying the community’s social hierarchies; the wealthier characters wore shiny waistcoats, and the peasantry wore cotton bonnets. But while Morgan James used an upper-class accent to distinguish between his roles as Warbeck and a countryman, such distinctions were not made obvious by the other actors; Sir Arthur Clarington, for example, was not noticeably more aristocratic than the other villagers. In addition, there was little evidence of the poverty that is so important both to the countrymen who blame their ills on Sawyer and to the struggling Thorney family.

  9. The absence of a detailed context has important consequences for the play’s representation of witchcraft and devils. The play is appealing to modern audiences partly because of its sympathetic representation of Mother Sawyer, and its apparent understanding of the scapegoating phenomenon that modern social historians have observed in witchcraft accusations. But these materialist implications of the story are of course undermined when the Devil appears, and when Mother Sawyer becomes a real witch. Jacobean audiences may have seen no contradictions here, but in a modern production, played to an audience for whom devils are fictional, the entrance of the Dog risks trivialising the play’s serious issues and diminishing its power to disturb. One solution might be to present the Dog as purely symbolic, an emblem of the social and psychological evils at the root of the Edmonton community. Alternatively, Kyle’s production represented the Dog as a real, independent creature, but drew the audience into a solidly realised religious culture. Rituals, hymns, and suggestions of Puritanism created a powerful vision of a society in genuine fear of devils; and Miles Anderson’s frightening performance as the Dog enabled the audience to share the villagers’ beliefs, rather than dismiss them.

  10. Like Kyle, Cox depicted the Dog as an independent being, rather than a symbol; it was evident throughout that the Dog was in complete control of the events. This was emphasised when the knife that Frank used to kill Susan was actually handed to him by the Dog, and when the Dog later caused Katherine’s discovery of it in 4.2. Here the Dog was, as the text implies,3 actually controlling and causing Frank’s crimes, rather than merely symbolising his unconscious desires. But although this is theatrically exciting, the lack of a strong theological background and the representation of Edmonton as a non-specific, timeless place meant that the production could not make the audience think deeply about the differences between Jacobean beliefs and their own. Instead, the play was simply presented as an enjoyable fairy-tale.

  11. Nonetheless, there was at least one moment at which the production made a direct connection with its audience. London is never absent from the play despite its rural setting, and numerous references to city place-names come to a head when Mother Sawyer gives her speech on the ‘witches’ of London court circles: the painted ladies, the lecherous gallants, and the grasping lawyers. These are the real villains, the playwrights suggest, as, at the end of the play, the Dog tells Cuddy that he will go to London to serve "greatness, corrupted greatness" (5.1.196). Cuddy resolves to beat the Dog "beyond the bounds of Edmonton", and Cox illustrated this with a splendid coup de theatre: the Dog kicked open the fire exit and stepped out onto the courtyard outside the Playhouse. He had left the bounds, not only of Edmonton, but also of the theatre itself, and was now standing in our world – the den of iniquity that is London.

  12. Enter the Spirit provided a strong addition to The Witch of Edmonton’s stage history, but they left me wanting to see more productions of this fascinating and complex play. There remains much scope for experimentation with the roles of Sawyer, Frank and the Dog, and Cuddy Banks is a splendid role for a comic actor. In addition, it would be good to see different solutions to the problem of communicating Jacobean ideas about the supernatural to a twenty-first century audience. The last word has not yet been spoken on The Witch of Edmonton, and I hope this production will inspire others to take up the challenge.

Works Cited

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© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)