It’s at this time of year when the nights are drawing in, the leaves have started changing and Halloween is just around the corner, that our thoughts start turning to the strange, scary and supernatural which makes it the perfect time to go along to Pitlochry Festival Theatre for their outstanding production of 'The Last Witch'.
Directed by Richard Baron (summer director at Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Artistic Director at Firebrand Theatre Company), this vivid, thought-provoking revival of Rona Munro’s 2009 ‘The Last Witch’ has been put on in association with the award-winning Firebrand Theatre company based in the Scottish Borders.
Janet’s tale isn’t so much one of charms, curses and superstition as it is of strength, imagination and anger.Having – at one point – studied psychology, the darker side of human behaviour has always been of intrigue to me and in particular, the prosecution of women branded as witches. It is difficult not to draw similarities between the early 18th Century way of life and conditions for women today. All over the world, women are still fighting against a culture where they are subjected to the misogynistic values, laws, actions, whims and language of men, one has to wonder, has equality really come far enough since the days people were tried and executed as witches?
As history tells it, Scotland saw more than 3,000 people accused of witchcraft tried and executed between the 16th and 18th Centuries. Highland Scotland in 1727 saw Janet Horne of Dornoch tried and burned as a witch. In fact, she was the last witch to be lawfully executed in the entirety of the British Isles. It was later speculated that Janet Horne wasn’t so much kissed by the devil, as she was by what we now know - thanks to medical advances - as dementia and of course, a mere 9 years after her demise, due to the inception of the Scottish Enlightenment, the execution of those thought to be witches was made unlawful.
Rona Munro’s ‘The Last Witch’ raises many questions however, it is clear from fairly early on that Deirdre Davis’ Janet Horne does not possess magical powers, nor was she kissed by the devil. Janet’s tale isn’t so much one of charms, curses and superstition as it is of strength, imagination and anger.
Having lost her husband shortly after the birth of their daughter Helen – portrayed powerfully by Fiona Wood – Janet was forced to raise their daughter alone in an unforgiving Highland Scotland where peat for the fire was scarce and food was merely a thought most nights. Extreme poverty and famine forced Janet to find the power within herself to overcome the brutal circumstances which often led to fanciful stories of calling the wind and charming fish from the sea, stories which ultimately led to her untimely death.
When the law rides into town in the form of David Rankine’s young Captain David Ross who hides behind his authority in attempt to thinly disguise the fact that he feels threatened by Janet Horne - the free-thinking woman who dares to be different - he wastes no time in joining church and state to put stop to the eccentric fables of the harmless widow fighting for survival in the harsh landscape.
As Janet is burned for her crimes, the men watch on with a mixture of regret, triumph and guilt in their eyes. The stage is aglow with orange light and smoke billows from the circle of land to the crackling sounds of fire as neighbour and friend Elspeth Begg brilliantly played by Helen Logan - in an effort to ward off any accusations of sympathy – spouts cries of condemnation in Janet’s direction that take the audience a long second to realise are actually messages of comfort and solidarity.
The whole production is skilfully tied together by the musical score composed by Jon Beales who is known for his work in theatres across Scotland and also for his work in Pitlochry’s annual sell-out event; The Enchanted Forest. Performances by the remorseful neighbour Douglas Begg played by Alan Steele and the guilt-ridden Minister Niall portrayed by Graham MacKay-Bruce are both convincing and emotive with Alan Mirren’s fantastic portrayal of Nick leaving you with more questions than answers.
The Last Witch is moving, memorable and at times humorous but it is also tense and emotional and tells an important story of strength and survival during a time of severe oppression.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre is one of my absolute favourite places to be. It is a small traditional theatre with an intimate auditorium set against the backdrop of the beautiful Explorer’s Garden and overlooking the picturesque rolling Perthshire hills.
The electrifying atmosphere from the foyer hits you as soon as you walk through the doors and the pre-theatre buzz starts to wash over you. Shows are scheduled to alternate so that if you’re visiting the area for a number of days, you’re free to visit the theatre on more than one occasion to take in various productions.
Megan was offered two tickets to the production of The Last Witch at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in return for her review.
With only a few dates left, make sure you buy your tickets and get along to see this outstanding production of The Last Witch.
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