Based on the events of the famous Pendle witch trials, and taking its title from a pamphlet printed in the early 17th century, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster is an intricate, thoroughly entertaining, but also thoughtful piece of theatre from Dawn State. Considering the subject matter and themes of betrayal, there are even a surprising number of laughs in this play within a play.
Initially we meet the cast of a travelling show, telling the story of the Pendle witches. It’s made up of three players, Thomas Potts, Roger Nowell and Jennet Device, and they perform the story to the public years after the trials have taken place. However, these turn out not to be any old troupe of actors, but people who were directly involved with the trials; the two men were zealous prosecutors of the accused witches, and Jennet is the former child witness whose testimony lead to her mother’s execution. As they recreate events for cheap laughs, the tension grows between Jennet and the two magistrates, even while they continue to perform the story of the witches’ downfall.
Although not absolutely historically accurate (in real life nine ‘witches’ were executed and at least two families were involved), the play ingenuously uses just three actors to depict a community who turn on a woman and her close family. The elaborate switches between characters that are made on stage, and the quick flits between scenes, are an impressive feat which somehow avoid becoming confusing. It’s all accompanied by haunting singing from the actors, and there’s some nifty use of a coat stand too.
Towards the end of the play the laughs stop the mood darkens – but this isn’t light historical material, and it wouldn’t have done the story justice if it had remained superficial. For me the ending felt a little rushed, but overall I was thoroughly impressed by the performance. The actors gamely battled through the roasting temperatures of their venue with sweat running down their faces and really did earn the very enthusiastic applause at the end.
Above all, this is a clever format, which has obvious potential to be difficult to follow for the audience – but isn’t. So come along and see it… you’ll be bewitched by the acting, charmed by the staging, and gripped by the spellbinding drama as it unfolds.