Wit and womanhood:The Welkin at the National Theatre

Maxine Peake, June Watson, Cecilia Noble and Jenny Galloway return to the stage in Lucy Kirkwood’s high-stakes story, The Welkin, on at the National Theatre until May 2020

23 January 2020

Plucking an event out of the history books, tearing out the page and rewriting it with an unforgettable serve of sensitivity, rage, humour and intensity is what Lucy Kirkwood does best. Like Chimerica (2013), in which she explored the butterfly effect of Jeff Widener’s photograph ‘Tank Man’ in Tiananmen Square, and Mosquitoes (2017), which unpicks the human impact of the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, The Welkin is underpinned by the sighting of Halley’s comet in 18th Century Suffolk.

June Watson (Sarah Smith) and Ria Zmitrowicz (Sally Poppy) in The Welkin. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

Ria Zmitrowicz plays Sally Poppy, whose fate must be decided by twelve ‘matrons’. She’s accused of murder, along with her lover, who has already been hanged. But her sentence is delayed – she claims to be pregnant, and the local justice can not condemn an innocent baby to the death penalty. Far from a typically empathy-inducing representation of young motherhood, though, Poppy is foul-mouthed, fizzing with condemnation of her own: of the system, of the women who could save her, of life itself. Zmitrowicz’s performance is charged with the wild energy of a storm, and it’s difficult to take one’s eyes off her throughout the production. With a striking set by Bunny Christie, the jurors are introduced at curtain up in a scene of physical, unending labour (washing linens, churning butter, beating rugs), but are released from their toil for one day. Peake, who plays an empathetic and exasperated Lizzy Luke, asks the judge how long they have to come to a verdict. ‘As long as you need,’ comes the reply, ‘one hour should do.’

Maxine Peake (Lizzy Luke) and Ria Zmitrowicz (Sally Poppy) in The Welkin. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

As a bloodthirsty mob gathers outside the courtroom, the intense scene is sliced unexpectedly with humour (Noble delivers a brilliantly unlikeable Ms Jenkins), forcing the present-day audience to wrestle with the ever-topical nature of the issues raised: women's agency over their bodies, the trust placed in a man’s word over a woman’s, the physical and emotional pain inflicted by and because of the uterus, the power of being believed. One character comments that more is known about a comet billions of miles away than the female anatomy, and Kirkwood even manages to throw shade at Gwyneth Paltrow’s health advice in a dry, knowing line delivered by Peake, and there are flavours of John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison in Kirkwood's storytelling.

The 'matrons' in The Welkin at the National Theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

Some scenes, rightly, make the audience wince. Occasionally, it's a questionable West Country accent, but more often than not, it's the intense physicality which Zmitrowicz in particular mastered. Three hours seems like a long stretch, but every exchange between these women builds and breaks the tension so rapidly that the minutes slip away far too quickly, and before you’re ready to let them go, it’s final curtain. 

Philip McGinley (Mr Coombes) and Maxine Peake (Lizzy Luke) in The Welkin. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

The Welkin is at the National Theatre until Saturday 23 May. National Theatre, Upper Ground, Lambeth, London SE1; nationaltheatre.org.ukThe production will also be broadcast to cinemas as part of NT Live on Thursday 21 May