After enjoying Caryl Churchill's Top Girls in 2019 we were quite keen to watch Vinegar Tom which seemed likely to offer more of the same plus WITCHES. Everyone loves witches!
The action of the play is straightforward enough - Alice is an intelligent, non-conformist unmarried girl in rural 17th century England. A very modern woman in all senses of the world. She roams about in an unladylike way and takes up with a nameless well-spoken gentleman (possibly the Devil, but more likely the lord of the manor really) she meets in the hope that he will take her away with him to London but he quickly discards her once he's had his pleasure. Back at home Alice's abrasive alcoholic mother and her scraggy cat Vinegar Tom are an annoyance to the neighbors Jack and Margery, but it's only when Jack's cattle start to fall sick that a scapegoat is truly required. Rather than believe any of their ills are their own fault, Jack and Margery call in the witch finders whose brutal methods are well-trodden ground at this point. Alice, her mother, her best friend and the village wise woman are all burned to death and life goes on.
Half a century on there are few surprises to be had in witch persecution dramas but in the era of Trump and Brexit the core issues are as relevant as ever: in hard times people look for someone else to blame, so they don't have to take a long, hard look at themselves. And blaming the rich and powerful would be difficult and dangerous so someone who conveniently can't fight back must be found. It's depressing that in the year 2020 immigrants, Muslims, etc are being demonized in the same traditional way that obviously stretches back to the Dark Ages. And so the world turns, getting better only by the tiniest and most reluctant of increments.
To liven the drama up a little Vinegar Tom is interspersed with musical numbers, sung by a chorus of witchy women, that draw more explicit parallels between what was happening to women in the olden days and in 1976, if anyone was still missing the point. These were fun if not enormously memorable: in fairness we were rather distracted by what surely must have been a deliberate dramatic decision to have all the characters talking in what registered to our British ears as strong Irish accents: "yeast" in the manner of "Yeats", likewise "say" for "see", and so on. Having seen British-accented productions by this company of players before we know they can pull them off elsewhere, so we were rather mystified. Do Americans find Irish accents easier to pull off? Do they just not much distinguish between, let's say, Yorkshire and Irish brogues?
Anyway I found it a bit hard to cope with an English-coded Witchfinder General torturing people in the voice of Jimmy Cricket. But the American audience all seemed very appreciative, so maybe it's just me! Whether or not they'll be quite so accepting of my forthcoming production of "Death of a Salesman" where everyone for no apparent reason speaks in Cuban accents remains to be seen...