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The Pendle witches: a warning from history?

Posted on 05 June 2012 Written by

The year is 1612 and, in one of the biggest witch trials this country has seen, 10 men and women from Pendle are hanged in Lancaster. Their crimes: murder and witchcraft. This summer, marking the four hundredth anniversary of the event, The Dukes in Lancaster is staging Richard Shannon’s Sabbat, which will then embark on a UK tour, bringing a slice of Lancastrian history to life around the UK. Not a horror story of the author’s imagination but a true historical event, this tale of persecution is undoubtedly shocking. But can it be relevant to audiences so many centuries later?

The answer from director Amy Leach is a resounding yes. First performed in 2009, Sabbat is a play that “is imagining some of the reasons why that trial might have taken place… and looking at reasons why the magistrate went after these particular people.” Focusing on those who were accused of witchcraft, the play speculates about what really happened, attempting to unravel the mystery that still surrounds the trials: “it’s kind of a fictionalised version of a true story”.

From Lancahsire herself, this is familiar territory for Leach: “It’s a story that I grew up with; everybody in this area knows about the Lancashire witch trials so I’ve known about them since I was a little girl.” Coming from the area, she found that one of the triumphs of the play is how it encapsulates the essence of Lancashire: “what really always intrigued me from the first time of reading this play was how rich it is. The writer’s really captured the sense of the isolated geography of East Lancashire… it’s got a very particular geography and weather to it, which I know in my bones… what always appealed to me from the very beginning of reading the script was how much it connected with the landscape and the weather of this particular part of the country.”

While the first and final performances of the play will take place in The Dukes, Lancaster, Sabbat will also be staged in four other locations. Two of these, The Muni in Colne and Houghton Tower in Houghton, are part of East Lancashire’s history. Colne is in the shadow of Pendle, “so that will be great to actually step out the theatre and be able to actually see the hill; that’ll be amazing,” Leach enthuses. She’s also excited to stage the show in Houghton Tower, an “incredible Tudor stately home and very much of the period”, as it is know for being a place where Catholics hid from persecution. But while the other locations, the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle and the Orange Tree Theatre in Surrey, might not share the history of the witch trials, Leach sees this as a good thing. The story of the Pendle witches is not so well known in other places, she explains, “so I think it will be great for people elsewhere to see the show and hear this story”.

Reuniting Leach with the original creative team from 2009 has been a fulfilling experience, particularly in regard to composer John Biddle. “There’s some very early church music that he wrote for it and that’s been great to hear all that again, to hear it be re-sung… to help to tell the story at each point of the play and to move the story on.” With the play’s sparse set and historical setting, “we very much felt from the word go that we wanted every single sound effect and piece of music created live… it’s all very organic as a piece.” In keeping with this ethos, costumes are also very much of the time. “We’ve got an amazing costume department here in Lancaster. The historical detail is really accurate, so I think it really helps again to give quite a detailed picture of the time, and for the actors to really feel that they’re part of the time as well.”

While the creative team might be the same, other elements of the play have changed for this production, keeping it new and fresh. Two of the actors are new to the show “and of course that means they bring  a completely different energy to the characters, the relationships and the whole piece”. There have also been a few rewrites to the play itself: “it’s been tightened up and there’s a few little new differences.” As a director, too, Leach is determined not to rely on the original performance. “The difficulty this time around is trying to unpick what I did last time and trying not to be too clouded by it”. Putting actors in the same places and speaking in the same way “actually wouldn’t be getting the best out of them and the rest of the play… I’m open to their new ideas and new thoughts about the play that maybe I hadn’t thought of… I’ve kind of had to unwind myself back to the beginning, so that’s been a big challenge for me.”

Despite working on Sabbat for a while now, Leach still finds the play moving, “particularly seeing it with new actors, because of course you hear lines differently and so they’ve become fresh… they’ve become like you’re hearing it for the first time again.” For her, the power in the play is knowing that this is a true story with real people: “every day as I drove home I’d see Pendle Hill and remember that these were real people and they were real people who were executed”. The appeal to human empathy is one of the play’s greatest strengths, as “what they’ve played with brilliantly is rooting it in the domestic and in the home… it’s a credit to the actors as well that they portray such a truth… that we really believe these characters.” Testament too to the characters created on the page by writer Shannon; “even people who have seen it before I think will return to watch again because it was such a powerful piece”.

Ultimately then, while set 400 years ago, the play’s message is one that is still relevant to us. A play that is as moving as it is thought-provoking, this is a story of persecution that has been re-energised for the twenty-first century. Steeped in history and facts yet alive with the power of the imagination, Sabbat brings the Pendle witches back to life with heart and vigour. As Leach summarises: “It’s about what happens if people are fearful of people who are different to them in some way, and particularly about difference in beliefs”. A question we still grapple with today.

Sabbat is at The Dukes, Lancaster, from 7th to 16th June before touring to venues across the UK, visiting the Orange Tree Theatre from 3rd to 7th July. For more information and to buy tickets, visit http://www.sabbattheplay.org/.

Image credit:

Annie Gouk

Annie Gouk

Annie, 20, is in her third year studying English Literature at Lancaster University. Also the features editor for the university newspaper, SCAN, her interest in journalism is matched by a passion for theatre. Luckily for her, a module in Shakespeare means the chance to see regular performances, while writing for AYT combines her two loves.

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