I spent this morning in a social media storm, reading reactions to the Daily Mail’s interpretation of the latest murder of a woman. Her poor husband was “living in the shadow of his high achieving wife”. Just another headline in the swarm of news stories that can make the feminist fight feel futile. It was with this swimming around my mind, that I headed to the Vault Festival to see Hexenhammer by theatre company Secretariat.
Hexenhammer, or in its English translation ‘The Hammer of Witches’, is a book written by two monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, in 15th century Germany. The book is a guide to witch hunting and in its time was the second-bestselling book after the Bible. It’s a horrifying text and widely believed to have fuelled the witch trials which swept across Europe. Secretariat tackle this subject in their production, a wonderfully comic yet hard hitting feminist delight, taking us from 15th century monasteries to the bedrooms of modern day incels.
Despite the subject matter, this is a funny show, and Sidsel Rostrup and Suzy Kohane are a joy to watch, with their impeccable comedic timing and hilarious references. A carefully inserted Taylor Swift quote triggers sniggers of delight in the room. In fact, barely five minutes go by without pockets of laughter erupting throughout the theatre. The chemistry between the two performers is magnetic – they bounce off each other and unscripted moments clearly tickle, as they try not to corpse: always a treat to witness.
There is no set to speak of; a carriage ride across England is demonstrated when Kohane sits on Rostrup, and simple lighting is used effectively. Costume changes are also simple but work well; even a slightly clumsy outfit change is made comical with Kohane’s stage presence.
An unintentional effect is the sounds of the trains pulling in and out of Waterloo station above the Studio theatre at the Vaults. Whist they improvise around this comically, the unpredictable nature of the noise does cause some problems. Kohane and Rostrup handle it well, but it was distracting, as were the sounds from the bar travelling through the wall. Vault Festival is a fantastic platform for the arts, but some of the venues do have issues that are hard to overlook.
Despite the noise problems of the venue, this is a brilliant show. It’s silly and funny, but it’s also intellectual and hard hitting, which is not a balance many can achieve. Among all the jokes and physical humour, Hexenhammer lays bare how far we haven’t come since the days women were burnt at the stake. But there’s an underlying sense of empowerment, no matter how hard the patriarchy tries to keep us down.
Written by: Secretariat, Sidsel Rostrup, Suzy Kohane
Directed by: Catherine Alexander
Hexenhammer has completed its run at VAULT Festival 2023.
You can find out more about this show in our interview here