Books, Miscellaneous

The Witch of Walkern

News from the education frontier.

Ipswich High School for Girls has cancelled a performance of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern. The play had its world premier very recently and is on tour. It was due to be staged there on October 13th but the school has cited concerns about the play’s language, in particular the swearing. The school justified the decision by assessing the play as (using that conformist, deadening, unarguable word) ‘inappropriate’.

I am planning to see the play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse later this month. The Guardian review last Tuesday described it as a heady brew of fear, prejudice and intolerance. It takes as its source one of the last women to be condemned for witchcraft in this country (1712). Jane Wenham was a woman who lived alone, an isolation which drew unwanted attention. At her trial sixteen witnesses (including three parsons) gave evidence against her and she was convicted of conversing with a black cat and sentenced to death. The sardonic judge had his doubts and obtained a pardon for her from the Queen. The trial caused a sensation in London and prompted a pamphlet war. The Times reviewer this week wrote that the play examines how evil simmers within societies driven by fear, and how the persecution of outsiders protects those within any conformist group. When a society defines a woman as a witch her voice goes unheard. The school has certainly prevented the actors’ voices from being heard in Ipswich.

An opportunity for the pupils has been discarded. I was a pupil at Ipswich School for Boys in the late 70s and early 80s and jointly with the girls from the High School we staged plays. My feeling for theatre was fostered by watching or performing in challenging productions at school: Macbeth, The Crucible, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Tempest and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (are the one’s that immediately spring to mind). The language of these plays challenged, confronted, extended, excited, enthralled, goaded me. These texts too contain witches, and magic, and outsiders, and exploitation, and repression and fear. I have looked today at the website for Ipswich School for Girls and drama alas is not mentioned at all. (Although they have a promising equestrian team.) Are the current pupils at Ipswich being starved of drama? If it is about anything at all is not education about developing critical thinking?

Swearing in my experience was a standard of the school playground, and I suspect that it still is. Why should the current pupils in Ipswich be so impoverished by their over cautious guardians? The governors should reverse this perverse decision.


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