The Last Witch

Nov 9 2018 | By More

★★★★☆     Hard as rock

King’s Theatre: Wed 7 – Sat 10 Nov 2018
Review by Hugh Simpson

There is a visceral compulsion to Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Firebrand’s The Last Witch at the Traverse. While apparently telling of a disappeared world, its evocations of fears, suspicions and power imbalances are worryingly contemporary.

Rona Munro’s 2009 play was originally seen at the International Festival. The fictionalised version of the life of Janet Horne, whose execution for witchcraft at Dornoch in 1727 was the last of its kind in Scotland, has a tough poetry and edge that ranks it highly in Munro’s impressive body of work.

Fiona Wood, Deirdre Davis and Helen Logan. Pic: Douglas McBride

Fiona Wood, Deirdre Davis and Helen Logan. Pic: Douglas McBride

There is a complexity and layered nature to the story – Horne (in a dazzling performance by Deirdre Davis) is neither a put-upon innocent nor a conniving criminal. Similarly, while it is clear that Horne herself has no unearthly powers, there are hints of the supernatural that may or may not all be in the minds of the characters.

This clever balancing act between two strands of the Scottish imagination– one a stone-cold poetry filled with an acrid, peaty reek, and the other a folksy, magic-realist breeze – has an unsettling effect that adds to rather than detracting from the human elements of the story.

Horne, her daughter Helen (a wonderfully complex Fiona Wood) and her neighbour Elspeth Begg (Helen Logan) are relatively powerless in the face of their male neighbours. David Rankine’s local sheriff Captain Ross is a nuanced portrayal of a man whose ego and desire for power are so tightly bound up with his own repressed nature that he cannot admit his faults to himself, let alone anyone else.

Meanwhile, Graham Mackay-Bruce’s ineffectual minister and Alan Steele’s Douglas Begg, while they are undoubtedly unthinking parts of a ludicrous system yoking pseudo-Enlightenment rationalism to fearful superstition, are still humanised both by Munro’s words and the performances. Alan Mirren’s Nick is suitably slippery, all handsome plausibility and strange sharp edges.

tough poetry

Richard Baron’s direction emphasises both the tough poetry and the human costs involved, while Ken Harrison’s set and Wayne Dowdeswell’s lighting combine the earthbound with hints of other realms.

Fiona Wood and Alan Mirren. Pic: Douglas McBride

Fiona Wood and Alan Mirren. Pic: Douglas McBride

Not all of it works completely. Jon Beales’s music makes use of some stunning, Gaelic psalm-influenced song, but also features a collection of singing bowls, rainsticks and thundermakers that are a little too pat and familiar in such contexts.

The design – and indeed the play itself – are not quite up to the raw horror of the conclusion, which lacks impact compared to what has gone before. However, this is probably inevitable; it is also a small price to pay after the power and thought-provoking complexity of the production as a whole.

Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including one interval
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 7– Saturday 10November2018
Daily at 7.30 pm, Matinee Sat 2.30 pm
Tickets and details:

The text of The Last Witch is available from Amazon. Click image for details:

David Rankine and Deirdre Davis. Pic: Douglas McBride

David Rankine and Deirdre Davis. Pic: Douglas McBride


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