The Welkin Back

*This review contains spoilers for The Welkin and mentions of violence and miscarriage*

The Heywood Society opens their production of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin (dir. Mercy Brewer and Fiona Popplewell) with women completing chores: hanging laundry, plucking chickens, and spinning wool. This is a recognisable portrayal of early-modern women; they are confined to the domestic sphere. Next, our protagonist, the midwife Elizabeth Luke (Eliza Harrison), is asked to serve on a jury of matrons for an assize trial. These opening scenes set up the central and most compelling theme of The Welkin: the interwoven nature of the domestic and public duties of eighteenth-century women.

            Taking place on one day in 1759, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin tells the imagined and intimate story of twelve women recruited to decide the fate of condemned criminal, Sally Poppy (Harriet Haylock). Sally stands convicted of murdering Alice Wax, the young daughter of her wealthy employers. Whether Sally is innocent is largely unmentioned and unimportant. Instead, the women must only determine whether Sally is pregnant.

            In early-modern England, ‘pleading the belly’ could be an effective way for condemned women to escape the gallows. If a woman was found to be ‘quick with quick child’ (meaning she could feel foetal movement), her execution was postponed to spare an innocent victim. This deferral would frequently save the woman’s life entirely. With such high stakes, others were enlisted to verify claims. In a rare example of early-modern women’s involvement in judicial decision-making, a ‘jury of matrons’ was formed to determine whether the convict was pregnant. These women need not to be of a particular socio-economic status or have specific medical training; having personal experience of childbirth was largely enough. Women serving as members of juries of matrons was not a rarity; rather, the role was an expected public duty.

            Ordinary women’s obstetrical authority shines through Kirkwood’s play. Only one on the jury, Elizabeth, is a midwife. Yet, her expertise does not stop the eleven others from disagreeing and sharing their experiences. The jury contains mothers from all stages of the life-cycle, including Peg Carter (Gabriella Shennan), heavily pregnant with her first child; Kitty Givens (Lizzy Riley), suffering from post-natal hair loss; Judith Brewer (Pauline Eller) experiencing a persistent hot flash; and the eighty-three year-old Sarah Smith (Alessandra Rey), mother of twenty-one children from three husbands. The play delivers an imagining of interpersonal eighteenth-century relationships and conflicts; years-long friendships and tensions intermingle with disagreements and chitchat. Impressively, each of matrons has a distinctive personality and memorable characterization. Yet, equally compelling is when the women demonstrate their communal knowledge of reproductive health: inquiring if Sally has experienced any outlandish symptoms, comparing when each started lactating, and sharing tips to combat menopause. Here, obstetric expertise learned in the household acquires authority and significance when brought into the typically masculine court. The jury room is vividly portrayed as a space that blurred the boundaries between the ‘spheres’ of eighteenth-century society.

            Given these foundations, the women’s decisions are particularly cutting. Even after Sally expresses milk, the matrons remain unable to reach a unanimous decision as to whether she is pregnant and enlist a male doctor to make his determination. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the growing medicalisation of pregnancy facilitated the rise of the involvement of professional man-midwives and doctors. Increasingly, traditional midwives were excluded. The production visualises this change well: as the doctor examines Sally, the matrons form a privacy screen and face away from her. When the doctor pronounces Sally pregnant, the women quickly affirm his findings. Elizabeth is the only one troubled by this trust in a medical professional rather than their collective knowledge. When Peg Carter regretfully informs Elizabeth that she will be supported by a doctor hired by her husband’s employer for her upcoming delivery rather than the midwife, it seems to sound the death knell for her position.

            Despite this fascinating socio-historical commentary, the play’s downfall is its ending, which is more suitable for an episode of EastEnders. Shock reveals and twists dominate in the last quarter of the play: fake identities, secret maternity, even witchcraft makes an appearance. Yet the most egregious of these surprises is the denouement. After Sally’s pregnancy is confirmed, the mother of the victim, Lady Wax (uncredited), visits the convict and pays the bailiff (Joe Orrell) to attack Sally and induce a miscarriage. After his success, Sally begs Elizabeth and another lingering matron, Emma Jenkins (Marta Zalicka), to spare her the humiliation of a public execution. Elizabeth begins to strangle Sally with her unlaced stays before the stage fades to black. Rather than leaving the theatre contemplating the complexities of female power, what is remembered days later are these gasp-inducing moments.

            The Heywood Society’s production can be considered a faithful adaptation of the National Theatre’s 2020 original. However, there is one deviation that undermines the central message of the story. In interludes before and after the courtroom drama, montages are shown of images of women throughout history engaging in housework and news snippets discussing abortion rights. This was disappointing after the clever staging in the opening. Instead of continuing the message that it was as natural for an eighteenth-century woman to serve on a jury of matrons as it was for her to engage in housework, these montages revive a narrative of mutually-exclusive and gendered domestic and public lives. I consider the story as primarily empowering, rather than oppressive. Although the matrons rely on a man to make their verdict, it is still their verdict. And although Sally dies, she decides her own destiny.  

            The Welkin is refreshingly humble: the characters are women from all levels of the socio-economic hierarchy and the story is not grand with far-reaching ramifications. This focus on the ordinary is important as it allows the audience to nuance their understanding of the roles, agency, and daily lives of early modern women. In this respect, the Heywood Society’s take on this play is effective, even if on occasion their communication of these messages becomes confused.