Witch trials aren’t just the property of Arthur Miller any more.
It’s hard to think about witches and the theatre without The Crucible coming to mind. In this 1953 masterpiece, Arthur Miller used the 17th century Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the McCarthy anti-communist prosecutions of his own era. The play holds such a formidable place in the canon, you’d expect any other playwright to find the topic too daunting.
Rona Munro, however, is made of sterner stuff. In The Last Witch, she is boldly venturing to 18th century Scotland to tell the story of Janet Horne, the last witch to be legally executed in Britain. Accused of casting a spell to turn her daughter’s hands and feet into horseshoes so she could ride her like a pony, Horne was found guilty, coated in tar and burned alive in Dornoch, Sutherland in 1727.
“I did the research, engaged with the subject, started the writing and then re-read The Crucible,” says Munro. “It was great because Miller wasn’t doing anything like what I was doing. But I think if I’d have read it first, I’d have spent the whole time trying not to write The Crucible.”
Commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival in a collaboration with the Traverse Theatre, the play goes on a journey of its own. What interested Munro, as she filtered through the material at Edinburgh University’s Scottish Witch Project, was the select group of women who did not deny their witchcraft, but were defiantly proud of it.
“When we think of witches, we all think of the women who were condemned and were clearly innocent,” says the playwright. “They were condemned because they didn’t fit in or they were scapegoats. They protested their innocence to the end. But there is another category who go, ‘Absolutely right, I was in league with the devil, I have that power and what are you going to do about it?'”
There is too little evidence about the historical Janet Horne to know whether or not she was one of this group, but for dramatic purposes, Munro has imagined her as just such a plucky character. There would be no surprise in a play about an innocent victim, reasoned Munro, but the stakes change when the woman – to be played by Kath Howden in Dominic Hill’s production – is an unrepentant rebel.
“I hope we’re doing something more surprising,” she says. “Someone declaring themselves in league with the devil in the 18th century is a potent statement. The play is partly about the women who refuse to deny their power even if it makes them extremely unpleasant – we’re not talking about easy characters – and it’s partly about the people who defiantly assert an ideology that threatens the status quo.”
In this, the play is consistent with a 25-year writing career in which Munro has tried to present an alternative view of her sex. “My continuing preoccupation is telling the kinds of stories about women that we haven’t heard before,” she says. “I could spend the rest of my life doing that and not run out.”
THE LAST WITCH, Royal Lyceum Theatre 23–29 August (not 25), 7.30pm; 27 and 29 August, 2.30pm matinee, From £10, 0131 473 2000
If you like this, try A British Subject at Pleasance Courtyard, 5–30 August, (not 11, 18)