In our enlightened times, it is widely known that the witch-hunts that were rampant in the 16th and 17th century were some of biggest miscarriages of justice in Europe to date. Any reason imaginable became a excuse to accuse women of dealing with black magic and consorting with the Devil. To compound matters, under the eyes of the law women didn’t have the same right as men, so there was no way they were going to get a fair hearing. Based on a real account in the late-16th century, Over The Limit Theatre address this perennially relevant history in The Witch’s Mark, which is written and directed by Timothy N. Evers. Playing Agnes Sampson, the accused woman, Celeste Markwell’s incendiary performance dominates most of the play. Watching her in silence for the most part is Evers himself, playing some of the men who accuse her… as well as the Devil himself.
The witch’s mark – a spot that supposedly manifests on the body as a result of copulating with the Devil or demon – is discussed early on, along with the torturous practises that really did befell women put on trial. However the real heart of the play is how Agnes was brought before the authorities in the first place and her background.
Jane Wenham in her play The Witch of Walken indicated that women who were gifted in the use of herbs for natural/’alternative’ remedies were singled out by men of status and deprived the women of what little ‘medical authority’ they had in their own right. Agnes’ own story fits this bill, but what’s really interesting is that after years of being the local ‘wise’ woman (as her mother was) and being the communal midwife, what set the chain of events in motion was her friendship with another woman and as the saying goes: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
While the passing on of the ‘healing ways’ was usually between mother and daughter, Gillis Duncan’s constant presence at Agnes’ abode led to her being an an assistant and protégé of sorts. However, Giliis’ hubris has consquences for not only herself, but for Agnes too. Unable to perform healing rites with the same dexterity as her ‘mentor’, Gillis’ half-learnt knowledge and its origins falls under scrutiny of powerful people. But the real nail in the coffin is Gillis’ declaration that she had met the Devil and more… And we know how well that worked with Abigail Williams in The Crucible…
Agnes’ own conversations with the Devil drives much of the play. As one of a handful of ‘wise’ women in the community who are knowledgeable, autonomous and have respect from all, she is self-sufficent and have no need for ‘power’ or anything else. The ‘flashbacks’ show that much like the Biblical story with Satan’s attempt to tempt Jesus, Agnes is offered all manner of things. But she won’t let him possess her body, soul or anything else that will let this ‘man’ have a hold over her. And if can’t have her, he will destroy her…
While the Jon of Arc-esque allusions abound, Markwell’s Agnes is neither ‘beatific saint’ nor in league with the powers of darkness. Her anger and pain is more than understandable, and the struggle to hold on to one’s sense of identity in spite of duress translates on so many different levels.
The Witch’s Mark ran at The Space Arts Centre unil 18th-22nd July 2017.