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.
Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.
The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.
It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. What follows is arguably the most extended and vitriolic marital argument ever staged. Over four hours of drunken skirmishing George and Martha tear strips off each other and their young guests, in a terrifying mix of games playing and truth telling, fuelled by anger, shame, disappointment, hatred and possibly even love. As the hostilities intensify both couples are forced to face unvarnished and difficult truths about themselves and their relationships. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Joining me to survey the damage of this blistering marital battle are John Mitchinson and Andy MIller, the co-hosts of the award-winning podcast Backlisted, which as its strap line declares “gives new life to old books”.
It is September 1941. German physicist Werner Heisenberg is visiting his friend and former colleague, Danish physicist Niels Bohr at his home in Copenhagen. Denmark is occupied by the Third Reich, and both men are under surveillance by the Gestapo. What is the purpose of their meeting at this charged time? Did they confer about the potential to build weapons based on the emerging knowledge of nuclear fission? Did Heisenberg wish to warn Bohr about the growing threat to Danish Jews? These questions and more are explored in Michael Frayn’s absorbing play Copenhagen. I’m delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the playwright himself.
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 …