Preview: The Welkin

The “daring, insightful [and] empowering” show took me behind the scenes

This week, I was able to chat up with the team behind “The Welkin”, a new ADC mainstage production opening this week. The play is hot off the National Theatre stage, and is described by one of the directors, Fiona Popplewell, as “daring, insightful, [and] empowering”.

Set in Rural Suffolk in 1759, Sally Poppy (played by Harriet Haylock) is sentenced to hang for a heinous murder, though when she claims to be pregnant, a jury of twelve women are brought in to decide whether she’s telling the truth, or “pleading the belly”, The women wrestle with their new authority, while a mob gathers eagerly outside, with Lizzy Luke (played by Eliza Harrison) being the only one prepared to defend the girl.

When asked what inspired them to choose this play, Popplewell answered “I was lucky enough to see its short run at the National Theatre before it was cancelled due to Covid. The play has stayed with me since – the script is beautiful and the story and its messages deserve an audience so I am delighted that we have the opportunity to stage it at the ADC.”.

Mercy Brewer, the other director, stated that “as soon as I read it I knew that we needed to do it justice – especially after having its run cut off, it’s such a shame that it didn’t get to inspire, make laugh, or make think as many people as possible. It speaks to so many women and girls today and Fiona and I wanted to go into it with lots of sensitivity and also confidence that we’re highlighting women’s stories – women that you just don’t hear about in history.”

Image credits: Paul Ashley

The message of the play is described as “feminist, hilarious, [and] timely” by Brewer. She said: “the show is directly drawing comparisons from women now to women today – this is very openly done, and it’s interesting to see women now still suffering from problems we had in 1700s: expected to do housework, being disbelieved by doctors, being distrusted by other women, all the way down to their experiences with menopause, periods and birth control (yes, 1700s style!), all of which are part of conversations between the women onstage. It’s not your ordinary period drama in that sense – they are having conversations from now.” Popplewell adds that “there is a wide range of conversations happening on the stage and we don’t want those discussions to end when the play finishes.”

However, Brewer’s favourite moment is still the unexpected comedy – “for a show about a woman trying to escape the noose, it’s a lot funnier than you might expect”. Popplewell explained that “you may cry, you will definitely laugh, and we hope to leave you inspired to be part of the change”.

Image credits: Paul Ashley

The play has also been noticed for its striking trailer. When asked what the process of filming it was like, Popplewell explained that “Grantchester was the perfect location because we wanted wide shots of unspoiled landscape, like it would have been in the 1700s. We did have to retake the shots because there were a few cyclists and dog walkers!…It was great fun, and this was part of our publicity and team-building day with the wider cast too.”

Brewer elaborated, saying that “[Sally’s] awareness and look back at the camera, as if to say ‘well done, you’ve caught me’, is part of her character, who seems to eerily know certain things that a 1700s woman shouldn’t.” On the character of Sally, she said that she “is designed to be a puzzle. Deciphering her silences, her moments where she should be desperate but isn’t, has been a real challenge which Harriet [Haylock] has risen to. She is a puzzling, Villanelle-esque character whose motivations are never clear – just as you think you’ve figured her out, she muddies the waters again.”

Image credits: Paul Ashley

While Sally is on one side of the play, on the other is the 12 women who comprise the jury. This was one of the factors that influenced the costumes, as Brewer explained that “we wanted costumes that highlighted the individual personality and class of each woman, but still highlight how they are a cohesive group, almost like a Greek chorus.”

It also influenced the set design, as “having a lot of people on stage means that we had to think carefully about their positioning”. Levels were “something we were passionate about from the beginning because height creates space”. The team have also lowered the forestage, where “there will be steps for other characters to sit, gossip, daydream…”.

Finally, when asked for any The Welkin inspired final words of wisdom, both answer that “‘nobody blames God when a woman can be blamed instead’ definitely feels resonant now”.

The Welkin is showing at the ADC from 24th-28th October, at 7.45pm. You can find tickets here.

Cover image credits: Paul Ashley

Other articles recommended by this author: