The scene is Dornoch in the far north of Scotland, where, in 1727, Janet Horne became the last woman in Britain to be legally executed for witchcraft. If the man in a curly gray wig playing the harpsichord seems anachronistic, it is nonetheless a reminder that superstition did not die out the moment the age of Enlightenment dawned on 18th-century Europe. Despite a powerfully acted production by helmer Dominic Hill, however, Rona Munro’s new play would need more such jarring imagery if it were to transcend its historical roots and escape the predictability of its incendiary ending.
In a commission for the Edinburgh Intl. Festival in a year when the theme of the Scottish Enlightenment pervades the program, Munro has taken the few known facts about Horne to create a fictional heroine with an eloquence and presence that recall the great female leads of Howard Barker and Bertolt Brecht.
This is a contradictory and contrary character: a loving mother who manipulates her daughter; a good friend who takes credit for casting a spell on her neighbor’s cattle; an opportunist whose heart is in the right place. In 21st-century terms, she is no more harmful than an astrologer, an eccentric fantasist with formidable independence of mind and body, but one generally accepted, tolerated and even liked by her community.
Played with tremendous charisma by Kathryn Howden, Horne has the charm of a confidence trickster. She seems genuinely to believe in her magical gifts, although what she truly relishes is power over others. It suits her for people to believe she is a witch not because she can actually do magic, but because it bolsters her independence and sexual freedom. Even when threatened with being burnt at the stake, she refuses to deny her supernatural abilities because to do so would be a denial of herself. She goes to her death in part because she is guilty as charged, a martyr to the cause of the free-thinking woman.
Unlike Brecht’s Mother Courage or Barker’s Galactia in “Scenes From an Execution,” however, Munro’s Horne has little to contend with until she is arrested, and after that point, the play can only mark time before her inevitable execution. For the most part, she is a big character in a minor drama, taking centerstage in a play that is more poetic than purposeful and rather too in love with its own pretty language.
Her neighbors Douglas (George Anton) and Elspeth (Vicki Liddelle) are half-hearted adversaries, and her daughter, Helen (Hannah Donaldson), is too enthralled by her to offer any serious challenge. Only the representative of the state, Capt. David Ross (Andy Clark), is anything like a match for her — not least because he does not believe her to be guilty — and it’s in the sexually charged scenes with him that the play is at its most gripping. “I can light a fire in the coldest of hearts and that’s what’s killed me,” she protests after successfully seducing him.
Performed in front of a curving wall on a circular set by Naomi Wilkinson — strip lights flickering and filmed birds flying every time the devil’s name is mentioned — Hill’s authoritative production shows the play off to its best advantage. That play, however, is too wedded to history to allow room for the kind of conflict the playwright’s fascinating central character deserves.