During the first half of the 20th century, there were a number of controversial high-profile cases in the UK, which in hindsight were seen as miscarriages of justice. The public outcry from these cases ultimately led to the suspension and abolition of capital punishment in the 1960s. January 2023 marked the centennial anniversary of Edith Thompson’s execution, and as a reminder of that fact and the issues surrounding her circumstances, theatre company Crowded Room has produced a play that highlights the event’s relevance in the 21st century.
Written by Harriet Madeley and directed by Madelaine Moore, Edith takes places during the trial of Frederick (“Freddy”) Bywaters and Edith Thompson, for the murder of her husband Percy. But rather than set the play in a naturalistic, Poirot-esque setting, the trial is staged to maximum effect with televisual replays of testimonies from the accused, plus witnesses brought in for the Defence.
Throughout the play, we hear the verbatim transcripts of the trial and the statements that Edith (Ivy Corbin) and Freddy (Peyvand Sadeghian) initially gave. We also hear what they said afterwards when they were aware they’ve both arrested. The flashbacks that take place give us an introduction to Percy Thompson (Mark Knightley) and we get a sense of what his relationship with Edith was like before she gravitated towards Freddy. Between the Prosecution (Rose-Marie Christian) and the Defence (Harriet Madeley), the audience perceives how the allegations at the time ‘pushed people’s buttons’.
While it wasn’t mentioned at all in the play, the events that led to the trial took place a few years after the First World War. At a time when Britain was still grieving for the ‘Lost Generation’ – all the young men of marriageable age who died before time – Edith was perceived as being ‘greedy’, having ‘two men to herself’. To be in a position like that, she ‘must’ have a lot of sway over men, to keep both her lover and husband in her thrall. She may have even suggested murder…
One of the cruxes of the case was the whether the private letters between Edith and Freddy were admissable in a court of law. Without them there was no tangible link between the stabbing of Percy Thompson and the accused. With the correspondence, however, the prosecution could argue that Percy’s death was premeditated and that Edith coaxed Freddy to do so.
The investigation into Percy Thompson’s death was part of the cultural zeitgeist and bled into the public consciousness. There are a number of references to Edith Thompson in Agatha Christie’s novels Crooked House (1949) and Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), while Alfred Hitchcock expressed the wish to make a documentary film on the case. Edith and Freddy were even ‘immortalised’ at Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors.
Looking beyond the trial itself, there was a fixation with ‘improper’ relationships in society during the 1920s to 1950s – whether it was the former King Edward VIII with Wallis Simpson, David Blakely with Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be hanged in Britain) or Alma Rattenbury and her 18-year-old lover George Stoner, who were put on trial for the murder of Alma’s husband Francis. Terence Rattigan based his play Cause Célèbre on the experiences of Alma, and previously he wrote about the ‘destructive’ nature of a Phaedra-esque relationship in The Deep Blue Sea. With this in mind, the eight-year age difference between Edith and Freddy in the play is something that the Prosecution homes in on, inferring she would have as much influence over him as say, nowadays, a young female teacher has on a student in their teens.
But I digress.
With only the letters as leverage on the couple, everything that Edith has written is scrutinised and interpreted in the worst possible light. Interpreted 100% in a literal sense, the Prosecution dismisses the notions of hyperbole or exaggeration with intent. Again, one of the things that plagues online discourse nowadays is nuance (or rather the lack of), perpetuated by the fact that not everyone is on the same wavelength. Even now, ‘language’ is a perennial source of discord. In the case of the play, there is debate over whether the ‘suicide pact’ that Edith ‘proposed’ to Freddy was genuine (or at least believed so by both lovers) and whether in fact this ‘extreme’ course of action was inferred and not really about the death of Percy Thompson. The Thompson trial also has parallels with another case that took place 20 years later. This involved Derek Bentley – a man with a mental age of a child – who shouted “Let him have it!” to his friend Christopher Craig when confronted with police. Apart from ambiguity being at the heart of what was allegedly said by the accused, the assertion of “joint enterprise” meant Bentley was charged with murder (and subsequently hanged), even though he never fired the gun.
Nowadays, intent, state of mind and circumstances play a big part of determining degrees of guilt in a court of law, but as the play shows, none of these things were considered at the time for Edith Thompson – focusing instead on her extra-marital affair. But if the perceived ‘immorality’ of a person is used to determine any and all accusations made in courts, if guilt by association is grounds for the severest possible sentences, how many figures in public life would be detained indefinitely at His Majesty’s pleasure? Then again…
The play begins with a snippets of well-known pop songs that directly or obliquely refer to women in a negative light. For the period of the trial, we see Edith dressed in red, the proverbial ‘scarlet woman’ as painted by the media. Outside of the trial, we see Corbin’s Edith dressed in everyday clothes, undistinguishable from any woman today. This is a subliminal indication that beyond the skewed perception of the courtroom, Edith isn’t ‘extraordinary’, just a woman who didn’t follow the mores of society.
© Michael Davis 2023
Edith ran at the Aldridge Studio, The Lowry, Salford from 1st to 4th February and was livestreamed on the 3rd and 4th of February.