The fascinating story of one of the last witch trials in England is the inspiration for a play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, opening this month at the Arcola.
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is based on the true story of an old woman who narrowly avoided execution after being accused and convicted of witchcraft in the Hertfordshire village of Walkern in 1712.
Jane Wenham was a ‘cunning woman’, a type of healer who used herbs to ward off illnesses. But after crossing certain members of the village she was accused of witchcraft and arrested. The trial caused a sensation in London, provoking a pamphlet war, while the village itself was caught between those wanting to save her life and those claiming to want to save her soul.
Lenkiewicz, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning film Ida, and whose play The Naked Skin was the first by a living female to be performed on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, was approached by Max Clifford-Clark from theatre company Out of Joint and asked if she wanted to write about Jane Wenham.
“I looked into it and thought it was fascinating and said yes,” says Lenkiewicz, a former Hackney resident who now lives in Leyton. “Although I’ve taken a few events and let it spring from that really because what interested me more is how it still resonates today.”
Arthur Miller famously used the Salem witch trials to comment on McCarthyism in The Crucible, and Lenkiewicz similarly uses the story of Jane Wenham to draw parallels to the present day.
“She was an outsider Jane Wenham, she lived on the edge of the village and I just think that fear of the outsider is very much still present. You see it with immigration, people terrified of anything or anyone coming into their territory. It’s not just modern it’s historical, and crippling in many ways.”
Wenham’s outsider status Lenkiewicz believes can be attributed to her age and gender. Part of it, she says, was economics – the idea of communities not wanting people who weren’t contributing anymore.
“But also it was mainly women who were prosecuted,” she says, “so I suppose my question would be what terrifies men about women that at that time they would put them into torture corsets and gag them?”
Lenkiewicz’s plays often – though not exclusively – focus on women’s stories, from her debut play Soho: A Tale of Table Dancers (the first production to be staged at the Arcola, back in 2001) to 2008’s Her Naked Skin, a tale of the struggles facing two suffragettes before World War One.
Lenkiewicz feels keenly that women are hugely underrepresented in film and theatre, and tries to redress that balance. Her most recent film script is about the Second World War allied spy Noor Inayat Khan, a radio-operator in Nazi-occupied Paris who was sent to Dachau and murdered. “She was an incredibly brave young woman, and you just want to bring out the story lest we forget,” Lenkiewicz explains.
This desire to give women who have been silenced a voice explains Lenkiewicz’s anger at the cancellation of a performance of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at a girls’ school in Ipswich last October, where it was due to be staged as part of regional tour prior to the London run.
Ipswich High School for Girls cancelled the performance after learning of the play’s “references to child abuse”, something Lenkiewicz dismisses as censorious and evidence of a “nanny state mentality”.
“I just thought it was a sign of our bleak nanny state times that they were forbidding 15- or 16-year-old girls to watch something that was incredibly pertinent to them,” she says.
“One of the main characters is only 16 and a very confused female. I just think it’s an apt piece to see for anyone who’s going through that maelstrom of change really of profound change.”
Lenkiewicz, who is now in her mid-40s, explains that her intention was always to tell Jane Wenham’s story, but that the writing process brought to light more instances of silencing and oppression towards women, the most terrifying of which being child abuse. “Kids are told they shouldn’t tell, and we should be addressing that – we shouldn’t be shutting these conversations down,” she told The Stage.
The irony that a play dealing with the hysteria and the oppression of women should be deemed inappropriate was underlined when Lenkiewicz received a letter from a 15-year-old girl who had seen the play in Watford.
“It was a very heartfelt letter saying how it had helped her in many ways and that she thought it was essential viewing for young women and that it was about empowerment,” Lenkiewicz recalls.
“If I was directing this play towards anyone it would be a young female contingent because it’s all about having a voice really.”
Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 30 January