In 2005 I visited Salem, Massachusetts and I remember it as a bizarre town that appeared to profit from its horrific past. While this is the case for many former sites of historical horror, Salem appeared to celebrate rather than condemn the Salem Witch Trials. Clichéd Halloween images of cartoon witches featured around the town, which was uncomfortable given that nineteen women and men were hanged, and hundreds of others accused of witchcraft there between February 1692 and May 1693. I was intrigued, therefore, to see a play about Abigail Williams, a girl who experienced fits and convulsions that, it was suggested, were caused by witches, sparking the Witch Trials. I wanted to find out more about this period and the aftermath for a child caught up in the horror.
We meet Abigail and her friend Mercy at the start of the play, as they arrive in Boston looking for a fresh start. Unfortunately, as they’re trying to find their way in a new city, they stumble into a boarding house with a hostile, thieving, housekeeper and abusive men. Abigail is haunted throughout the play by the ghost of one of the women she betrays and accuses of witchcraft. If this sounds like a lot, it is.
This is a long play at over two hours, and it feels unnecessarily drawn out. The Witch Trial and history surrounding this horrific moment seem insignificant, as the main drama centres around Abigail and Mercy’s fresh start. Yet the play struggles to sustain a clear narrative direction and also features some deeply uncomfortable moments, including a very graphic rape scene. While great theatre should challenge and not shy away from such horrors as appropriate, it’s hard to understand the narrative purpose of many of these moments. It feels as though the play is striving for shock and horror, without clearly identifying the reasons why.
The cast have their moments; there are some highly fraught emotional scenes they carry powerfully. Yet at other times, it feels more like a workshop rather than a fully polished performance, and they struggle to keep the momentum of the drawn-out scenes. The depiction of the woman Abigail accuses of witchcraft is creepy: portraying her as a sinister character with a cackling laugh feels in bad taste, perpetuating the cliché.
There is real potential in this play, exploring the aftermath of life for these young girls who sparked the Salem Witch Trials. Yet the root of the subject gets lost in an overcomplicated plot, with characters who could have found themselves in this situation by any means. While Salem, Massachusetts appeared to glorify its past, Abigail seems to dismiss it entirely which is a shame.
Written by: Stephen Gillard and Laura Turner
Directed by: Stephen Gillard
Produced by: Fury Theatre
Abigail plays at The Space until 7 May, and is then available for two further weeks on-demand. Further information and bookings can be found here.
Note: This performance was watched online, live from The Space, and unfortunately there were some sound issues which made it more difficult to stay engaged throughout. I found myself lunging for the volume button at a scream, after turning it right up for some of the dialogue. While I understand that sound can be a challenge to get right, it did further impact on my enjoyment of the play.