Review: The Welkin, National Theatre

Stemming from the Old English word for ‘cloud’, the welkin is a vault in the sky: the home of the legendary Grigori, an elite race of angels tasked with watching the failings of the earth below. In Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, we assume the role of the Grigori, charged with watching the way the world did, and does, fail women. Indeed, Kirkwood, who has previously found acclaim with Chimerica and The Children, holds no punches: her new play is stylish, sharp and shouldn’t be missed.

It’s rural Suffolk, 1758, and Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) is sentenced to hang for a wicked murder… but she claims she is pregnant. 12 local women are pulled from their housework and tasked with ascertaining whether she is telling the truth, or just trying to escape the noose. Only the town’s midwife, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Luke (Maxine Peake) is quick to jump to the condemned woman’s defence… but with a mob outside demanding justice and the jury inside already content with her fate, what can Luke really do?

It’s 12 Angry Men by way of The Crucible; the jury’s debate over Poppy’s pregnancy is tumultuous, laced with personal vendettas and ethical uncertainty. However, as the 12 women clash and disagree, a central irony emerges: the jurors aren’t tasked with deciding Poppy’s innocence – that is a decision for the men instead – but only if she is pregnant; even if they believe her totally innocent, all they can do is delay the inevitable. In this sense, the debate over Poppy’s supposed pregnancy becomes emblematic of much wider discussions: of the role of women in society, of the failure of Georgian law to provide gender equality, of whether to falsely claim that an innocent woman is pregnant in order to postpone her execution. It is in these moral uncertainties that Kirkwood thrives, layering ethical dilemma on top of ethical dilemma; it is a thrilling thing to observe.

Moreover, James Macdonald’s direction expands off this moral ambiguity excellently, reinforcing the contemporary relevance of the play. Indeed, the characters are more evocative of modern-day women than would be expected: they exchange banterous barbs, trade gossip, and comment how much they enjoy sex with their husbands; it’s anachronistic, but deliberately so. Thus, when we see these seemingly modern women be wholly failed by the law, it purposely posits the question, are contemporary women equally let down by the law? The production toes this line delicately, balancing thematic discussion with surprisingly good comedy.

Across the board, The Welkin’s team delivers excellence. From Bunny Christie’s set design and Lee Curran’s lighting design working in perfect tandem, creating spaces that can switch instantly from intimate to overwhelming, to a cast that feels so at-home in their characters, its shocking that yesterday was opening night. Ria Zmitrowicz is the true stand-out of this talented ensemble, creating a persona that is equal parts pitiable, detestable and incomprehensible; just like the jurors, you are sucked into her mystery.

As Lizzie Luke effuses passionately to the other jurors, “the law was not built for us”: her assessment rings true for women, both on stage and in the audience. The Welkin is an utter success, creating a thrilling masterpiece that finds modern relevance with too much ease. Indeed, after three hours of moral quandaries, heart-breaking realities, and a climatic final tableau that cuts straight to the core, we realise two things: how far we have come, but truly how far we have yet to go.

The Welkin is playing the Lyttleton Theatre until the 23 May. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.