WITCH is a historical play written by Tracey Norman and produced by Circle of Spears Productions. Based on archival records, WITCH has now been performed around the United Kingdom for several years, clocking up its 75th show very recently.
Is Margery Scrope based on a real person? (I presume it’s not based on the game of throne character!)
Ha ha! No, Margery is definitely not connected to GoT in any way! She is inspired by a woman from Lyme Regis, who was accused of witchcraft in 1687 and tried at the Dorchester Assize. When I wrote WITCH, I was working from four handwritten pages of witness evidence which was given in the trial, so there was almost nothing of the accused herself as a person. In order to create Margery, I started researching around the subject and cherry-picked the real-life experiences of about six or seven different people to create a fully-rounded character whose story remained true to the original.
What made the witch trial such a good subject for your play?
I was hooked from the beginning because this was not a big, sexy case with long and detailed confessions or descriptions of rituals and spells. There were no familiars, no broomsticks, no devil-pacts. It was a very human story, with an extremely mundane act at its heart – she shared a pipe of tobacco with three other people. One of those people, a young man, became ill afterwards and started suffering from fits, which led to the accusation of witchcraft. I have always been interested in social history and this case was a perfect example of how society and beliefs can impact on interpersonal relationships, especially in small towns or villages. The more I read and re-read the witness evidence, the more layers and points of interest I found, so there was plenty to inspire me. I was particularly interested in how many everyday acts, such as sharing tobacco, led to the devastation of people’s lives, both those who believed themselves to be bewitched and those accused of such acts.
It is far from being the most famous of Witch trials. How did you go about researching the events? Were there any particular obstacles?
One of the major stumbling blocks was non-standard spelling. When I wrote the play, I had two different versions of the accused’s name. I searched for everything I could find in those names. There wasn’t much to find, unfortunately, but coupled with the additional research I undertook, there was more than enough to enable me to write the play. However, I wanted to know the outcome of the trial and to find out something about the accused personally, so after the show was written, I carried on researching. My accused, however, seemed practically invisible in the historical record. There were no birth, marriage or death records and many of the references I followed simply led me back to the information I already had. At one point, entering either version of her name into Google led to about 9 of the first 10 responses being my own website, which was incredibly frustrating. I followed every reference I had as far as it would take me and eventually located a Masters thesis from the late 1990s which, as luck would have it, appeared to be housed in Exeter University, not far from where I live. At that time, WITCH had been booked by Exeter on several occasions for their undergrad students and through the contacts I had there, I was put in touch with the author of that thesis, a lovely lady who very kindly lent me a copy of her work. From that, I saw straight away why my accused seemed so invisible in the historical record – every time she appeared, it was under a different name. There were about 9 variations and as soon as I started looking for those, I finally got some new information. As is the case with old records, you just have to sit down and go through them line by line, and by doing that, I stumbled across some interesting information concerning one of the people who had given evidence in the case, which helped to shed some light on her relationship with the accused. In fact, that particular person’s story has become just as fascinating to me as that of the accused herself! The rest of my research involved trawling through a variety of books, but whenever I could, I preferred to go back to the original documents.
You use trial transcripts from 1682 but set your play roughly a century earlier. What was the reasoning behind that?
I set the play in Tudor times simply because I am lot more knowledgeable about that period of history. I wanted to explore a number of issues, such as the rise of Protestantism and how changing perceptions of charity and private property impacted on the poor. Having the turbulence of the Reformation as a backdrop echoed the turbulence of the Monmouth rebellion as a backdrop to the original case. I was able to incorporate land enclosures into the story, as well as touching on such topics as judicial scepticism, patriarchy, misogeny and early modern medicine.
I find the transcript that you draw much of your research quite interesting. The section talking about fits in particular as I have epilepsy. What makes the evidence in this case so unusual?
The accused was not your stereotypical ‘witch’ in that she was married and had a degree of financial security. Her husband, like the father of one of the victims, was a mariner and she was affluent enough to be able to afford tobacco. However, the evidence contains a number of common features which can be seen in a number of different cases. Witches were often reported to be wearing green, red and white, and one of the deponents mentions these colours in his evidence. During their fits, both victims claimed to see apparitions of the accused in various places – in the rafters, flying out of a shuttered window and sitting on their chests, hampering their breathing. This last seems to be a reference to Old Hag syndrome, or sleep paralysis, which is another common feature in witchcraft trials. Pins and nails were removed from the victims’ bodies without leaving marks, which, again, crops up in a number of cases. It is curious that, although three deponents speak of the source of the bewitching in the young man (the pipe of tobacco), the fourth, the mother of the second victim (a teenage girl), does not. She describes her daughter’s symptoms without making any reference to how the alleged bewitching was effected – and, curiously, although the evidence was given before two magistrates, with a clerk recording what was said, no one asked that particular deponent how her daughter had been bewitched. Interestingly, during a post-performance Q&A session back in May, one audience member spoke about anthropomorphising his own epilepsy, which was a fascinating insight into the possible origins of apparitions during fits.
Where and when can people see Witch being performed?
You can also enjoy WITCH in audio format as a full-cast drama, available exclusively from myself in person at events or from the Circle of Spears Productions website www.circleofspears.com/store
How did you get into writing?
I have always told stories. Some of my earliest memories are of telling stories for hours while acting them out with my toys. I’ve always had some form of writing on the go, but it was only in the last few years that I had the confidence to do something with it. I was invited to contribute a short story to a charity anthology raising money for MIND and the feedback I had from that story prompted me to start writing professionally. Now I write a regular folklore column for the Dartmoor newspaper The Moorlander, have a couple of books published and about five more, in various genres, currently on the go.
How do you balance the fact and fiction when writing this type of play?
With WITCH, the fact was always the most important thing. Pretty much everything that happens is lifted directly from the historical record. I selected the experiences which fitted best with the original story because of their tone, the fact that they were unremarkable in some way, or because they helped one of the characters to either form or refute an argument. Although the characters are my creations, there is far more fact than fiction in WITCH.
One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved?
I have tried to stick to the facts wherever possible because history doesn’t really need embellishment. In our Q&A sessions, there is often a little ripple through the audience when we tell them that everything they have just seen was lifted from the historical record – it adds another layer to the show and really makes people think. WITCH was written as a discussion piece, so there is no pedestrian journey from A to B with an accused who is clearly innocent or clearly guilty. All three characters have grey areas and just as you think you know them, they say or do something which forces you to reevaluate. At the end, it is for each audience member to decide whether they think Margery is guilty or not – and, if they decide she is, we always ask people “Guilty of what?” That’s a question which has provided some interesting answers, as well as making people pause to consider. One of the comments we get frequently is how the play resonates with current issues in society. Women, minorities and anyone seen as “other” are still persecuted and denied rights just as much as they were four hundred years ago.
Which authors / playwrights have been most influential to your own writing to date?
I am a big fan of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels, set in Tudor times. He’s a fantastic writer. His descriptions are rich and evocative, his characters well-observed and believable, to the point where, even when his main character is being a complete idiot, you still root for him in spite of wanting to give him a good slap.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write whenever and wherever you can. In a coffee shop, at the kitchen table, on the bus. If you can’t progress on a project, leave it for a few days and go back to it with fresh eyes. Maybe work on something totally different in the meantime. And remember – you can’t edit a blank page…..