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UK play on witch-burning seen as modern parable

By Ian MacKenzie
/ Source: Reuters

By Ian MacKenzie

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - Superstition, torture, and its effect on the perpetrator are at the heart of historical drama "The Last Witch," which although set nearly 300 years ago still resonates today.

Rona Munro's play at the Royal Lyceum Theater, commissioned for the Edinburgh International Festival, is based on sparse fact and local legend about the fate of Janet Horne, convicted and burned for witchcraft around 1727, on the eve of the Scottish intellectual Enlightenment.

The story is of a sharp-tongued countrywoman who plays on the superstition of her neighbors, flirting with a fire that eventually consumes her.

Before the burning, believed to be the last execution for sorcery in Britain, she is subjected to brutality and sleep-deprivation, cant and hypocrisy. But the only confession wrung from Horne is to save her daughter from a similar fate.

Director Dominic Hill said that although the drama was historical, it had contemporary relevance.

"I wasn't interested in presenting an historically accurate view of Scotland in 1727," he told Reuters.

"I think any playwright writing a big play, even if it is an historical play, is in a way still writing a play about the world in which we live."

The resonance of torture and suffering in the 21st century "is absolutely there," he said.

"You know, (you have) a woman tortured through sleep-deprivation, a man who imposes a kind of law on society (who) is stamping out the irrational, stamping out music, stamping out magic as it were, and imposing law and order on a society that had its own customs and ways of working for hundreds of years.

"That's not a million miles away from what's happening in various parts of the world in the last few years, so although (the play) is historical, I think the attitudes and the actions and the notions of the characters are 21st century."

Hill said he found festival director Jonathan Mills' concept of a themed and provocative approach to the festival program a welcome one.

"I think that's quite an interesting way of inviting your audience to engage intellectually ... I like that sort of intellectual conversation it provokes."

A reviewer for The Scotsman newspaper, Benedict Nightingale, found the play "absorbing if uneven."

He also had praise for leading actress Kathryn Howden: "Whether she's boasting of charming fish from the sea or raising winds, there's something magnificent about Howden's Janet. If she's a witch, let's have more of them."