15 – 20 Aug
Goodness me, that was intense and amazing! Right up close and personal, the envy and the hatred really kick in…
Marian Isbister is a simple young woman accused of witchcraft – initially because she has refused the local shepherd’s advances. His version of the story is believed by his employer Patrick Stewart, the Earl of Orkney, rather than hers: everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and takes extreme delight in accusing her of all sorts of wickedness. The small-minded and ignorant people around her have no pity, no compassion – only one neighbour is kind. Even when Marian is able to refute some of the accusations at her trial, her fate is inevitable. The prosecutor at first appears to be reasonable and on her side, dismissing false or flawed accusations, but when in addressing the masked and hooded jury he warns them “She looks innocent: we will not let ourselves be misled by appearances. We need to root out the evil before it takes over”, he spills out his own bile and hatred, fear, ignorance and determination to uphold the status quo: the Natural Order, the hierarchy with Earl at the apex and crofters, fishermen, and labourers at the bottom must be upheld, and any attempt to challenge it firmly squashed.
Marian is condemned to death, and to appalling torture beforehand: her head is shaved, her eyebrows plucked out, and her finger and toenails removed with pincers. She is mocked as she is brought to the gallows, and rejoicing is widespread after her death: the Earl has decreed a holiday, and the good Orcadians dance, drink and carouse till midnight. Thank god for the merciful executioner who grants her speedy release after all she has suffered, strangling her swiftly before the prosecutor has read but three words of her sentence. Her body is burned and the ashes scattered to the four winds from the top of a hill.
Witch was made by two master-craftsmen – George Mackay Brown, the Orkney poet whose short story Witch was part of his1967 debut collection A Calendar of Love, and the composer Peter Maxwell Davies who lived in Orkney for many years. St Magnus Players are a community theatre group based in Orkney, who bring plays from the St Magnus Festival to Edinburgh. Originally performed in 1991, this revival was originally intended to mark the 20th anniversary of Mackay Brown’s death: sadly it also marks the passing of Max, who died earlier this year.
The prose is taut and powerful, the narrative shared by members of the cast: the music intersperses and supports the narrative, heightening the atmosphere and expressing the protagonists’ emotions. In the original production five musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra played: this time the score was brought to life by five very talented Orkney-based musicians directed by Glenys Hughes.
The persecution of a scapegoat and the suppression of all sympathy or fellow-feeling are as relevant today as in the seventeenth century: the parallels are underlined with projected images on the croft house wall – the initial beautiful Orkney landscapes are replaced by images of hangings, of lynchings and of young women who dared to challenge the status quo – Joan of Arc and Malala Yousafzai. The cast are excellent, taking a worryingly intense delight in the persecution, and playing many characters with lightning changes, while Erika Leslie as Marian Isbister is the still, silent and innocent centre to the whirling frenzy around her. The rope initially laid out to mark out the playing area, which is picked up by the crowd and used both to surround, confine and bind Marian and then to drag her to prison – a symbol of the web of deceit in which she is inextricably entangled from the very first accusation. It is ironic that on the day that Marian dies, James VI affixes his seal to an order to investigate the manifold crimes of Earl Patrick Stewart.
Witch is gripping, and disturbing; the parallels with today clear for all to see. An excellent piece, excellently performed, and greatly appreciated by the audience. It’s only on for a week – don’t miss it!