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.
One Podcast Two Plays! Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic A Servant to Two Masters and Richard Bean’s hilarious update One Man Two Guvnors. We explore all of the ingredients of the original play in the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, as well as how Bean translated these so successfully into his smash hit at the National Theatre. Writer and director Justin Greene joins me to sample this multi-course theatrical banquet. (Commedia afficionados will appreciate the gourmet references!).
The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.
The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.
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 …