400 years after the infamous Lancashire witch trials, and three years after its original performance, The Dukes has revived Richard Shannon’s gripping play Sabbat. A moving tale of fear, loss and persecution, the play deals with the story behind the witch trials, exploring the events that led to the hanging of 10 men and women from Pendle.
With a cast of just four members, the story focuses on local magistrate Roger Nowell (Robert Alvert), his young wife Judith Nowell (Hannah Emanuel) and two of the accused witches: poor and desperate Jennet Preston (Nisa Cole) and the well-off widow Alice Nutter (Christine Mackie). With such a small cast, it is easy to become immersed in the human stories behind their relationships. With Miriam Nabarro’s sparse set design of woodchip flooring (the bark bringing a smell of earth and the outdoors to the performance) and a stark slab as a stage, there are no distractions from the intense script and powerful acting.
While the performance perhaps starts off slowly, it gradually picks up, building the tension between the characters and creating a pervading atmosphere of fear. This culminates at the end of the play, a high point being Alice’s defiant speech in refusing to confess to witchcraft. Shannon’s writing here sincerely exposes the atrocities and injustices dealt with by those persecuted for their beliefs, and is performed with passion by Mackie.
The devastating effect of the trials is fully explored in the penultimate scene, with Jennet and Alice in prison before their execution. Cole and Mackie’s portrayal of the breakdown of the women’s hope, and even sanity, brought some of the audience to tears. The poignant moment is furthered by the haunting music of John Biddle, whose chilling compositions for voice were both raw and beautiful.
One of the play’s successes is in the relationships it portrays. The marriage of Roger and Judith Nowell is particularly convincing, as we see the devastating loss of their stillborn son. Robert Alvert successfully brings sympathy to the character of the magistrate, a loving and dutiful husband who finds an outlet for his grief in persecuting those he does not understand. Hannah Emanuel acts well alongside him, as a woman struggling to stay true to her duty as a wife, while also keeping her own beliefs and independence.
As the outcast of the play, Nisa Cole’s portrayal of a young and perhaps deluded woman, epitomises the issues surrounding witchcraft at the time. Turning to witchcraft in search of power denied her because of her class, Jennet goes on to implicate others and exaggerate events in order to escape execution herself. Cole accomplishes treading the delicate line between an understandable and mistreated character, and one who is responsible for the persecution of the innocent. Ultimately it is her fear, along with the fear and anger of Roger Nowell, that leads to the death of so many.
A truly remarkable and moving play, Sabbat brings to life the history of the Lancashire witch trials. With an outstanding script, compelling acting, and wonderful direction by Amy Leach, this is definitely a must-see.
Sabbat plays at The Dukes, Lancaster until Saturday 21 July. For tickets and more information, click here.