Reviewed – 8th September 2021
“whilst the production itself falls short, Charles’ efforts to highlight Reckord’s writing should be remarked upon and appropriately lauded”
‘White Witch’ is undoubtedly a fascinating tale, and whilst its credentials as being based on a true story are more than shaky (the story of Annie Palmer is a legend with no real historical evidence), its messages of equality, sexual liberation, and collaboration over competition are incredibly powerful and pertinent.
But the actual performance is massively lacking. Though Joseph Charles’ production might have gone down a treat in 2017, with one reviewer describing it as “theatre at its best”, unfortunately the same cannot be said for his 2021 production.
Set in eighteenth-century Jamaica, plantation owner Mr Palmer (Robert Maskell) returns from a trip to England with a new wife, Annie (Georgina Bailie), whose supposed powers of witchcraft have preceded her. But her magical powers are the least of Palmer’s worries. It transpires that whilst in England, Palmer partook in the lynching of a young black man who was, unbeknownst to him, Annie’s lover. She sets about to take revenge, marrying Palmer and, from the moment she arrives in Jamaica, proceeding to dismantle and destroy his entire estate and him along with it.
A very compelling plot, full of varying shades of horror and complex characters. On stage, however, it’s chaos, playing for laughs when the audience should be at their most tense; often speaking in thick and fast West Indies accents and facing away from the audience with no microphones, making it extremely difficult to hear; music and sound effects starting and stopping suddenly, often louder than the dialogue and without any verbal or visual cues or explanations. And the sound effects (Derek Fevrier) themselves are bizarre: dogs barking off-stage are clearly people barking, and gunshots sound more like ‘poof’, leading the audience to lean towards one another and audibly ask what that was, despite someone obviously walking off-stage with a pointed gun.
The lighting (Larry Coke) is erratic, beginning with a soft yellow morning hue, then switching to a blue in the next scene, one would assume to denote evening. But during the same scene it switches back to yellow, followed by another blue hue with accompanying cricket noises. So now it’s night time? What happened before? In the final moments of the play in which (spoiler alert) Annie’s genuine powers of witchcraft are revealed, the lighting becomes a speckled, swirling red, which makes the whole thing feel very silly.
The plot itself is rich in conflicts and desires, progress butting heads with old power. But somehow by the end it’s devolved into a sort of farce, the audience comfortable enough to holler and heckle. This seems so at odds with the subject matter it does actually cross my mind that Charles is going for a kind of Dadaist absurdism.
Credit where credit is due, in 2017, Joseph Charles discovered a play that had never been performed in the United Kingdom, by Barry Reckord, a massively underappreciated writer who deserves a firm place in the canon. And rather than paying his dues just the once and allowing Reckord to slip back into partial obscurity, Charles stuck to his guns, and gave ‘White Witch’ another turn. And whilst the production itself falls short, Charles’ efforts to highlight Reckord’s writing should be remarked upon and appropriately lauded.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Teshna Farquharson
Bloomsbury Theatre until 18th September
Reviewed by Miriam this year: