There is enormous potential for Barry Reckord’s play White Witch. He is a celebrated Jamaican writer, and the piece returns to the London stage after a successful run at the Chelsea Theatre in 2015. The story in itself also catches my attention – “based on a true story, set around Rose Hall [….] White Witch is a tale of mysticism, love, cruelty and revenge, cast against the Atlantic slave trade.” Palmer (a slave owner played by Robert Maskell) brings his new wife Annie (Georgina Baillie) back to his plantation in Jamaica. Rumours of magic and witchcraft swirl around Annie, who finds no pleasure in sleeping with her husband and instead seeks it with the slaves who run his household. The premise sets up White Witch beautifully – and yet, sadly, my viewing of it leaves much to be desired.
To get the more technical points out of the way first, I find the many of the actors’ projection poor. Even though I am sat relatively near the stage, I can barely hear Baillie’s voice, and the continuous shouting of Maskell’s character means that his words slur together and I sometimes truly am not sure what he is saying. To add to this, though Baillie’s character Annie is the main protagonist, her acting is quite wooden. She employs a limited range of emotions and tones, and thus I find it hard to stay engaged when she speaks. This lies in direct contrast with the excellent Natasha Springer, who plays a maid called Chloe – she has incredible highs and lows, and soars from restrained to scenes of utter delirium, dancing and screaming around the set. Unfortunately for Baillie, Springer’s excellence as one of the more minor characters only serves to undercut her performance as the protagonist.
The production and staging is also disappointing. Often the scenes are chaotic and messy, with characters slamming in and out of doors at random. Some scenes end too abruptly and I am left wondering what has just happened. By the end of the play, I feel genuinely lost – not only because the plot moves too quickly (somehow alongside dragging dialogue), but also because many of the actors speak so quickly I cannot understand. The final revelation of the play, which I think is supposed to be an exciting twist, means nothing to me, as I truly do not know what is happening and do not feel invested in any of the characters onstage.
I understand I have been harsh on White Witch, but I think this stems from my disappointment at missed potential.There are fascinating themes here surrounding relevant topics such as abortion and race, and there are many bright moments where I laugh and gasp thanks to the acting of Springer, Okon Jones, Judith Jacob, Charles Tomlin and Nathan Thomas. I only wish these actors and their characters had more time to shine. For me, having the plotline centred around Palmer’s wife Annie, the white witch (Baillie), means that the storylines of the marginalised are undersold. I want to know more about the slaves in this play, I want to hear more about their points of view. Instead, we get too many dialogues from Baillie, which I cannot really hear, and which also sometimes creep dangerously into a tale of white saviour complex.
White Witch has the roots of an important play: its themes of abortion and race in the 18th century become more relevant by the day; some parts of the plot shine; and several actors are wonderful. However, in its execution, it really misses the mark.
White Witch is playing the Bloomsbury Theatre until 18 September 2021. For more information and tickets, see the UCL Culture website.