Lucy Kirkwood’s new play at the National Theatre is a revelation: hilarious, tragic, harrowing and utterly compelling. Set in the mid-18th century, it confronts contemporary issues with a ballerina’s lightness of touch, without compromising its place as a period drama.
It follows the case of a young woman who’s been found guilty of a terrible, terrible crime: one that she doesn’t deny. The gibbet awaits, but for one inconvenient detail: she says she is pregnant. The menfolk refuse to be drawn into the icky business of the female reproductive system, so a panel of 12 “matrons” are gathered to decide if she is indeed with child.
It’s clearly an inversion of male-dominated courtroom dramas such as 12 Angry Men – indeed a subtitle could be 12 Horny Women. Kirkwood revels in verbalising the characters’ interior lives, detailing their lusts and desires in gleefully lurid detail – something that still feels mildly revolutionary in the phallocentric world of theatre.
But don’t go in expecting a comedy: at its heart The Welkin is a tale as black as an 18th century night. It’s the battle for the life of an aggressively unlikable young woman – incredibly acted by rising star Ria Zmitrowicz – who spits in the face of anyone who speaks in her defence. In the second half supernatural themes emerge, combining the superstitions of the time with the uneasy feeling that all is not quite what it seems.
The stultifying nature of domesticity hangs heavy over the whole affair, with each woman a prisoner in one way or another, be it to the justice system, the patriarchy, or a field of leeks. It’s played out against an incredibly stylish, stylised backdrop, with the staccato rhythm of household chores – the beating of carpet, the churning of butter – providing momentum between scenes.
It’s an exceptional play, dragging you through an emotional journey that will leave you as damp and colourless as one of these washerwomen’s freshly laundered sheets.