Royal Lyceum Theatre
23-29 August (ex.24) times vary.

You expect a polished production from the EIF and my goodness do you get one in The Last Witch. The latest offering from the prolific talent of Rona Munro transports us to Dornoch, 1727, to witness the build up to the last execution for witchcraft in Scotland. Though not quite marching to the tune of this year’s theme of Enlightenment, The Last Witch is certainly a captivating, challenging and thought provoking piece of theatre.

Munro presents a flamboyant widow, asserting herself in a parochial society, using her fondness for curses and escapism to effectively manipulate her neighbours and support her daughter. This role is played with astounding zeal by Kathryn Howden, who brings to the character a feisty flirtatiousness, domineering strength and almost pathetic humanity. Interestingly, while one could argue that she is hoist by her own petard, central to her downfall is the fact that there is nothing more dangerous than a man scorned in a patriarchal society.

Fluctuation of tone and an air of uncertainty are key features of a play that boldly manipulates with seeming simplicity. One particularly interesting, and at times unsettling aspect of Munro’s writing is her penchant for undercutting the most painful, harrowing moments with genuinely comic one-liners. While humour pervades this production, thanks particularly to Janet Horne’s mischievous, raucous character, the instances in which it trespasses on tragedy’s domain create a sense of hollowness rather than mild relief.

Typical of the production, the simplicity of the set initially masks its great potential. A sunken sphere created the perfect focus for action, particularly in some of the more torturous scenes, and especially in the second act. The use of projected images creates an ominous atmosphere and a terrifying finale: there was a unanimous exhalation as the lights went up; three hundred people had been holding their breath!

Rona Munro has created a paradoxically entertaining, yet profoundly unsettling and strangely open-ended play. The language is often bawdy and humourous despite the constant presence of poverty and certain death. Central themes of power, law, magic and gender are teased out yet left hanging or engulfed in the flames. An exquisitely crafted piece of theatre.

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