With over 3,000 events taking place in the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the space within the programme finite, the number of characters allotted to each company to describe their show strictly limited, it is a canny move on the part of returning Fringers Dawn State Theatre Company to squeeze as much information on their show as possible into the bold printed title.
The year is 1615, and clerks of the court Thomas Potts (Christopher Birks) and Roger Nowell (Dan Nicholson) are enthusiastic and brash showmen as they tour the county telling the tale of how they brought to justice the family of Elizabeth Southerns, known locally as Old Demdike, the elderly matriarch of those who would come to be known as the Pendle Witches.
But it was not always so; Nowell was once a firm but pragmatic believer in the law who understood that accusations of witchcraft were most often nothing more than “backstabbing and squabbling which have crowded the courts,” refusing to entertain the accusations of the grieving farmer Richard Baldwin, his wife and son both dead after a curse was laid upon them when he refused to aid the beggar Demdike.
“Witchcraft is near impossible to prove in a court of law,” Nowell cautioned, but his vanity pricked by Baldwin, even a reasonable man can take unreasonable action and he eventually travelled to Pendle to attempt to capture Demdike in the act of witchcraft, even if it entailed what would in modern judicial parlance be considered entrapment.
As befits a tale of the north of England, the people are not given to the hysteria of The Crucible, the cruelty of Witchfinder General nor the hysterical cruelty of Mark of the Devil; instead the tragedy is that of the third unhappy performer in Potts and Nowell’s travelling show, Jennet Device (Amy Blair), granddaughter of Old Demdike, last survivor of her family, who as a child was coached and rehearsed by Nowells to accuse the family who had neglected her, now older and grown resentful of the part she is still expected to perform.
Directed by Dan Coleman from Gareth Jandrell’s script inspired by Potts’ own contemporary report published in 1613, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster and with music composed by Nicholson, this adaptation focuses only on the central players of the case and offers a fictional, though dramatically plausible, aftermath.
Simply told with a minimum of props and set and with only three performers the necessity of doubling parts is played for humour, Potts and Nowell bickering over which of them gets to play the plumpest roles, particularly the witch herself, Old Demdike, events coming to a crescendo in the farcical fifth chapter of proceedings, The Coven of the Pendle Witches and the Summoning of the Very Devil Himself.
This shifting approach serves to leaven the heavy subject matter of the true case of the Pendle Witches, ten of whom were found guilty and hanged in 1612, but the trio of performers are all talented at drama and comedy and can not only carry a tune but share a harmony, making the hour pass swiftly even in the oppressively airless environment of the Pleasance Attic.