The Welkin

Review - The Welkin at the National Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Some plays are easier to admire than to actually enjoy. The hard work with The Welkin starts even with its title - a middle-English word referring to the sky or heavens. As 1759 Suffolk looks to the welkin for the arrival of Halley's Comet, a more earthbound drama is unfolding, as a young woman is sentenced to hang for the murder of an 11-year-old girl. Her claim to be pregnant could save her from the gallows (and sent to the colonies instead), but it needs to be confirmed. So a jury of 12 "matrons" are empanelled to decide whether she's telling the truth or not. 

A pre-courtroom drama, in which the unseen, but occasionally heard, presence of a baying mob hovers outside, its a play of fierce ambition but muddled execution. On the one hand, here's a play that puts leading female playwright Lucy Kirkwood on the expansive stage of the Lyttelton (she has previously been represented by Mosquitoes at the Dorfman), to field a story populated almost entirely by women to decide the fate of one of their number.

Though the stakes are incredibly high, it is, on the other hand, hard for either the playwright, her director James Macdonald, or a hard-working cast to maintain the tension across nearly three hours; it's not always as easy to follow linguistically either, thanks to the range of regional accents employed. 

I worried that I was just being lazy, or guilty that I wasn't relating quite as much as I ought because I'm a man. But fellow female critic (and mother) Claire Allfree relieved me of that charge when she wrote in a review of the Daily Telegraph: "I'm ashamed to say that, much like childbirth, I was relieved when it was finally over."

And yet I was also constantly compelled, at least, by the superb ensemble cast. Though at the performance reviewed the always-wonderful Cecilia Noble was absent and replaced by a very capable understudy Daneka Etchells, it was wonderful to see a cast of such fine actors interacting so sensitively with each other. Though Maxine Peake is nominally the billed star of the play as the woman leading the defence of the prisoner, with Ria Zmitrowicz as the unlikeable accused who does herself no favours, it's a stunning group effort, amongst whom Haydn Gwynne, Jenny Galloway and June Watson also stand out.  

The Welkin is at the National Theatre until 23rd May. 

Originally published on

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