Sabbat is a play by Richard Shannon, based on the trials of the Pendle Witches. It was first staged at the Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, in 2009, and has been revived for a nationwide tour, marking the 400th anniversary of the infamous witch-hunt.
I was able to catch a showing of Sabbat during last week’s run at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond-Upon-Thames. It’s a theatre in the round (or to be more precise, square), and its wooden interior instantly reminded me of the imposing courtroom at Lancaster Castle, where the real-life witches were prosecuted back in 1612.
Miriam Nabarro’s set design is simple but effective, with four hooks hanging from above the stage. There are only four actors, and very few props, but director Amy Leach makes every moment count. A haunting soundtrack is provided by traditional songs, performed acapella, occasionally punctuated by howling winds or a beating drum.
For those, like me, who know the true story quite well, it’s hard to ignore the liberties which have been taken with historical fact. This is partly understandable, because the actual details are dauntingly complex – and, in fairness, the audience at Richmond certainly enjoyed the play.
However, this loose adaptation sometimes skews the balance of the tale. The magistrate Roger Nowell, who instigated the trial, is depicted as a distraught husband (played by Robert Calvert) who becomes convinced that his childless wife (Hannah Emmanuel) is bewitched.
In fact, Roger Nowell had several healthy children. His pursuit of the accused witches was not motivated by personal trauma, but religious dogma – and, perhaps, worldly ambition.
The character of Jennet Device – the nine year-old girl who testified against her entire family, played by Nisa Cole – is amalgamated with that of her older sister, Alizon. As a result, Jennet comes across not so much as the scared child she surely was, but rather as a wayward teenager.
The Devices were a motley crew of cunning folk, or healers, increasingly marginalised within their community as economic hardships and religious intolerance took hold. Unfortunately, Shannon’s portrayal of Jennet does little to illuminate their plight.
Alice Nutter was a widow of independent means, though not as wealthy as suggested. There is no evidence that she practiced magic, but her family were known as recusant Catholics.
Shannon depicts Alice here as a wise woman, who nurses Roger’s wife during her ill-fated pregnancy. While this is a fictional ploy, it works quite well – largely thanks to Christine Mackie’s confident performance.
One of the most successful modern readings of the witch-hunts – Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – was also a very elastic version of the truth. However, though sensitively staged, Sabbat ultimately lacks the emotional resonance of Miller’s classic play.
After touring such venues as Lancashire’s historic Hoghton Tower – visited by King James I in 1617, five years after the trials – Sabbat is heading home, with a stint at The Muni in Colne this week before returning to The Dukes in Lancaster.
Despite my reservations about the storyline, I would recommend Sabbat to anyone with an interest in the history of witchcraft. As a moral fable, it is often lyrical and poignant. Hopefully it will bring home to audiences the dangers of persecuting the vulnerable during harsh times.
Witch-hunting is still a feature of many societies – even London, where a thirteen year-old boy accused of witchcraft was murdered by his uncle in 2010. Stepping Stones Nigeria, a charity founded in Lancaster, seeks to end the abuse of children suspected of witchcraft.
You can learn more about the production at the Rehearsal Room blog. Richard Shannon’s script has also been published by Oberon Books. Sabbat is one of many cultural events honouring the anniversary, of which more details can be found on the Lancashire Witches 400 website.