The Welkin at the National Theatre 2020
019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood
It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age. It also reminds us how what we believe informs how we exercise our social responsibilities. The play is not simply a recreation of the past, but a timeless testament to women’s resilience. I am delighted to be joined by the playwright herself to explore her rich and resonant new play.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in London in January 2020 with a fabulously strong female cast that included Maxine Peake, Haydn Gwynne, Ria Zmitrovicz, among many others, and was directed by James MacDonald. The play’s run was sadly cut short by the first Covid lockdown in March 2020. We look forward to its revival on stages around the world when theatre returns.
Lucy Kirkwood’s plays include her acclaimed Chimerica, which dramatized in stunning visual stagecraft the relationship between China and America through the iconic photograph of the Tiananmen Square protests. The play won an Olivier award for best play in 2014, and was expanded into a four-part TV drama by Lucy herself. Her next play, The Children, produced at the Royal Court in 2016 and directed by James MacDonald, is a thought-provoking and moving story of love and friendship set in an apocalyptic world following an unspecified environmental disaster, which unexpectedly has echoes of the pandemic we are living through. Lucy’s last play before The Welkin, Mosquitoes starring Olivia Coleman and Olivia Williams was staged by the National Theatre in 2017. Mosquitoes combines a family drama with the science of particle physics, and is typical of the ambition, variety and emotional power of Lucy’s work, which explores large ideas and themes through moving personal stories.
Lucy is also a screenwriter. In addition to her TV adaptation of Chimerica, she also wrote The Smoke for Sky TV in 2008,and most recently the four-part series Adult Material, which followed a woman’s life in the adult film industry.
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The Footnotes to our episode on The Welkin include more on symbols in the sky, the life of the wife of a poet, and the apt sound of the butter churn.
Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …