Towards the end of The Welkin, one of the characters observes that her society knows more about the moon than the inside of women’s bodies. It’s 1759, and a comet has appeared in the sky, just as the astronomer Edmond Halley predicted. Celestial mathematics is far less mysterious than the everyday reality of pregnancy.
The bulk of Lucy Kirkwood’s lengthy play takes place in a single room, as a jury of 12 “matrons” gather to decide if Sally Poppy, convicted of murdering an 11-year-old girl alongside her lover, is telling the truth when she claims to be pregnant with his child.
If she is, she will be spared hanging – and merely transported instead. As Sally Poppy, Ria Zmitrowicz is extraordinary: feral and unsympathetic, she is all bravado until she tucks her chin down, like a surly toddler, and you see the vulnerability beneath. Perhaps that’s why Maxine Peake’s local midwife, Lizzy Luke, is determined to save her. But the other women don’t want to trust her opinion; they want a (male) doctor.
Kirkwood’s text is messy, ambitious and genre-bending. By putting a baker’s dozen of female characters together, she foregrounds the relationships between women, a parallel social system that runs alongside the male-dominated public world. They are separated by age and class and fertility as much as they are united by their sex.
In this play, womanhood is 90 per cent elbow grease: when Lizzy Luke is summoned to join the jury, she argues with the court attendant Mr Coombes without a moment’s break in the task of churning butter. Later, another juror tries to squeeze milk from Sally’s breast to prove her pregnancy, working away like she’s at a dairy farm. These women know hard labour: not least June Watson, who has had 21 children. Between trying to rule on the case, the women discuss periods, contraceptive methods (one deploys a brick at the crucial moment), the violence of their marriages and the casual rape perpetrated by aristocrats.
For all its thematic cleverness, though, the play’s weird structure prevents it from feeling satisfying. We open on a tableau, beautifully constructed by set designer Bunny Christie. Against a brilliant white backdrop, starkly lit female figures do the housework: beating carpets and changing nappies. Then the curtain falls, for a dragging minute, and we move to the authentic pitch dark of a rural home lit only by a candle. Sally has returned to the husband she abandoned, and is covered in blood, wild and gloating.
When he takes off his belt to beat her, she tells him calmly: “There’ll be no more of that.” He turns her over to the court. At jury selection, the women stand in a line and confess their secrets instead of taking the oath. Multiple miscarriages. A woman who has been mute for 20 years. A mother whose baby weighed 12lb at birth – but, she adds, they now get on very well.
And then, after these vignettes, we’re into the jury room for the next two hours. It’s disorienting, as if the play didn’t know how to start, and it’s hard not to suspect that the tableau is the definition of a darling that should have been killed. There are other weirdnesses, too: some hairpin plot twists that border on melodrama, and the suggestion by Sally that she lured the girl to her death by playing “aeroplanes” with her. “What’s an aeroplane?” asks Lizzy Luke. “I don’t know,” Sally replies. Nothing more is said. Later, the women sing Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” to console the woman who keeps miscarrying.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of period drama alienation – I love a Hamlet in modern dress but original verse – but here the half-commitment to it seems peculiar.
The acting is mostly strong. Cecilia Noble, who broke my heart as the social worker in Alexander Zeldin’s Faith, Hope and Charity, is perfect as the town’s petty Hitler, desperate to hang Sally for the crime of having a sex drive, never mind the murder. Maxine Peake’s flintiness takes the edge off Lizzy Luke’s habit of speechifying like John Proctor with a uterus obsession. Zmitrowicz turns Sally, an 18th-century Myra Hindley, into a character both compelling and repulsive. The play’s East Anglian setting, however, sees some of the younger actors veer into strange Wurzel-ish “rural” accents. The National is one of few subsidised theatres big enough to have a voice department, so it pains me to hear the cast’s vocal sat nav steer from Norfolk to Somerset and on to pastures new. Sorry, paaaaastures new.
The purest joy here, though, is the way the form reflects the theme. The Welkin is relentlessly gynaecological. It uses the unknown continent of the female body to explore how women are failed by laws and medicines developed by men. It shows that a matriarchy might be no less hierarchical or violent than a patriarchy. And it does so by putting women, their lives and their differences centre-stage.
What does the title mean, you ask? It’s an old word for the heavens. Kirkwood’s characters might be looking at the welkin, but they are always at the mercy of their wombs.
Helen Lewis is a staff writer at the Atlantic. “The Welkin” runs until 23 May
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out