The Welkin (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

The Welkin, a three-hour epic piece of drama by Lucy Kirkwood, puts women front and centre, from the visually dazzling tableau of Bunny Christie’s opening set, with twelve compartments and twelve women doing their household chores, through to a feminist take on Twelve Angry Men in which midwife Lizzie Luke attempts to sway a jury of fellow matrons to agree the pregnancy of a condemned woman set to hang for the murder of a child.

I found it visually stunning, brave in its frankness of the feminine voice, but ultimately too dark and ponderous to have sufficient weight for its length. There are some lovely performances from the ensemble cast – Maxine Peake is arguably the biggest name and has the meatiest role, but the gems come thick and fast from deep within. The other matrons are played by Natasha Cottriall, Daneka Etchells, Jenny Galloway, Haydn Gwynne, Zainab Hassan, Aysha Kala, Wendy Kweh, Cecilia Noble, Dawn Sievewright, June Watson, Hara Yannas and Brigid Zengeni, with Ria Zmitowicz as Sally, the murderess.

We see three men on the stage: an abusive, neglectful husband (Laurence Ubong Williams); a court official who seems the very picture of respectability (Philip McGinley); and a doctor (Williams again) brought in to underline the ruling the women were already on the point of making. All three make decisions and take actions which push the narrative in directions the women are powerless to change.

Opening tableau of The Welkin
Opening tableau of The Welkin

The men who are absent, the husbands, the lord of the manor, are conjured up in quick succession and none of them come out that well. There are tales of laziness, of lechery, of wilful misunderstanding in a world where one man’s word outweighs that of all the women in the world, encumbered as these females are by their “curse” and their ovaries.

Most of the women have their tales to tell: the one who has bore 21 children, the one who is barren, the one who is visiting the province, the one who seeks advancement, the one who starts mute until a revelation catches her. They are from all classes and age groups, but all share the same experience of their bodies and their subjecation. As they bond together and freeze out the only man in the room, their tongues loosen and their differences slip away.

There are moments of humour in the bleakness (Sally, shackled by the hands, tries to pee in a bucket while the other women turn away in prayer, and no one thinks to help her perform this basic function), and there are touching moments too, and shocking ones. There is a tension around money, status, and the resignation that the best a woman can hope for is a man who can provide for her and not bother her too much in the bedroom.

Ria Zmitowicz and some of the matrons in The Welkin
Ria Zmitowicz and some of the matrons in The Welkin

Making Sally, the condemned woman, so unlikeable, so obnoxious, removes the focus from her a little, but the quality of the writing gives us time and space enough to get to know her so the final scenes see us firmly on her side. The ending, though, is a little melodramatic and it takes a long time to get there. This is a play to admire, but I can’t say that I really liked it.

The Welkin continues in repertory at the National until 23 May 2020. It is directed by James Macdonald. Image credits Brinkoff Moegenburg.

LouReviews purchased a ticket to see The Welkin.