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.
It is 1789 and a group of convicts in the newly-founded colony of Botany Bay in Australia are assembled to put on a production of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer. The true story of this unlikely theatrical enterprise is the subject of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning play, Our Country’s Good, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988 almost exactly 200 years after the events it portrays. The play is a vivid portrait of the volatile new settlement in New South Wales, which raises timeless questions about what makes for a country’s good: the exercise of justice, the iniquities of class, the value of education and culture, and particularly of the redemptive power of theatre itself.
It made complete logical sense to follow our last episode on The Recruiting Officer with this wonderful play, and even more sense to invite Director Matt Beresford back to talk us through it.
George Farquhar’s rollicking Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer is ostensibly a portrait of officers engaged in the nefarious art of impressing men into the army in the country town of Shrewsbury, but it is as much a tale of the local ladies themselves recruiting for lovers and husbands. The classic comic satire of love and war, and sex and deception was first performed at Drury Lane in 1706, and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century and a staple of education curricula and theatre programming ever since.
Director Matt Beresford joins us to assess the ‘recruiting officers” respective strategies and successes.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
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 …