The Last Witch ***1/2

Rona Munro’s The Last Witch is an interesting selection for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.  It plays into this year’s theme of Enlightenment and showcases many of Scottish theatre’s best talents, but the end result feels rather lukewarm.

The Last Witch is about the last person executed in Scotland on grounds of witchcraft.  And here, due to the fact that the actual historical facts are mostly unknown, Munro gives us a great dramatic twist: the woman in question believes she is an actual witch.  Janet Horne casts charms and threatens to use spells against neighbours who annoy her, and she has her daughter Helen convinced she’s the real deal.

Act one is more about the daily lives of the community that Janet lives in and how most humour, even become fascinated by, her claims of magic.  Captain David Ross is called to investigate and quickly surmises she’s nothing more than a fraud.  But the question of whether or not Janet possesses magical powers always floats around the stage.

Act two is radically different, containing little of the first half’s playfulness.  Janet has been incarcerated and is being tortured to secure a confession, which will then lead to her execution.  While members of the community take turns at abusing, even trying to ‘save’ her, daughter Helen does her own detective work to determine whether her mother is a witch or not.

Munro’s script is quite good.  There are some great scenes and lines, and every character is fully realised and has at least one powerful moment.  If I have a complaint about the script, it would be that the first act feels a bit leisurely, taking it’s time to unfold a story that the title pretty much gives away.  But this slow pace does allow for some great character moments, especially with the supporting cast, which most writers would have sidelined in favour of leads Janet and Captain Ross.  Act two, however, is quite solid, even if some scenes feel a bit too short and rushed, perhaps due to time constraints.

The production is well handled.  Director Dominic Hill has created an entertaining production that works on a few levels: historic drama, community soap opera, political intrigue and semi-supernatural thriller.  The staging is quite fluid, even fun at times, and the design mostly works well (some of the projections are weak, but their overall use does impress, and the florescent light flashes seem to annoy some but I thought it worked rather well).  There is even a nice symbolic touch of using a live harpsichordist, dressed in period costume and powdered wig, in the first act, only to have his instrument smashed to pieces for the second act.

And the ensemble work is very good.  Everyone impresses, not only with their individual performances but with how each character interacts with each other.  Kathryn Howden’s Janet is a multi-layered character, one which the audience mostly sympathises with, even when she commits some questionable acts in the first act.  Andy Clark plays Ross as a wounded animal, weak but willing to do anything to prove strength.  George Anton, Vicki Liddelle and Neil McKinven have some great moments as members of the community and Ryan Fletcher has some solid scenes, mostly in the second half, as Nick.

However, Hannah Donaldson’s Helen is actually the production’s most interesting character, an intelligent young woman that must overcome a physical disability and social stigma to become an independent adult.  Her journey actually makes for some great scenes that feel short-changed due to her supporting-character stature within the main arch of the play.

And yet, with all of these strengths, I still felt rather underwhelmed by it all.  There is no negative component I can think of that prevents this from being the great production it could be, but something just doesn’t quite come together, resulting in a production with excellent parts but a rather lacklustre whole.  There are plenty of ‘could of, should of, would of’ moments, but nothing is out of place or done with anything less than full commitment.  It is rather strange that the end result does feel rather hollow.

The Last Witch is a very good production, even if emotionally it amounts to much less than it should.  It has a great cast, a mostly good design and assured direction from one of the best director’s working in Scotland, and it is written by one of Scotland’s premiere writers.  But with all of the talent, something remarkable should have happened rather than this ‘nice’ production that is mostly forgettable.

Run at the Lyceum has completed.

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