With a modern feminist perspective remaining prevalent throughout, the lengthy drama comprises three hours of highs and lows exploring the value of women outside of domestic duties in eighteenth century England. 


Lucy Kirkwood’s new play centres around a convicted murderer, Sally Poppy, and the immense responsibility of a jury of twelve matrons tasked to determine her fate. Using the historical practice of consulting matrons in the case of pregnancy claims, the all-female jury must assess whether Poppy’s undetermined pregnancy is genuine or simply fabricated to avoid the death she has been sentenced to. The play delves into the varying perspectives of the jury; who each offer preconceived ideas about Poppy and what her fate should be. Poppy’s primary defendant throughout is midwife Elizabeth Luke, who provides a contextual dimension of understanding to audiences regarding the consistent poor treatment of women in the justice system. She argues that “nobody blames God when there’s a woman who can be blamed instead”.


Though life for women has altered considerably since 1759, modern parallels within the play are often hard to ignore. Women are largely free of the burden of domestic duties, and childbearing is no longer perceived to be the sole purpose of their livelihoods. However, many issues explored hold significance for women today.  Luke mocks the perceived threat of women forming their judgement based on emotion, as opposed to truly considering what the outcome should be. Women are still often perceived to be maternal by nature, and consequently unable to cope with any form of work historically designated for men. Luke protests the maltreatment of women in the legal system, arguing that the court house institution was not established for them, and has consistently failed them and women before them. 


Despite the overt themes of gender inequality and how the justice system fails to value women, sympathising with Sally Poppy is made distinctly difficult due to the nature of her character. She is distinguished as an evil woman, with distorted morals funding her justification of her crime. In spite of Luke’s emotive defense of Poppy, she performs to the ideas that the jury have formed about her being evil. 


The dark nature of the plot would presumably prohibit any kind of humour, as the matrons grapple with the immense responsibility placed upon them. Yet, Kirkwood provides relief from moments of heightened tension to humorously depict the situation that the matrons are in. Both the differences in individual characters and the areas of unity are used to incorporate humour within the play. Though the jury is comprised of a selection of matrons from various situations, their unity is still apparent throughout. The jury are able to relate to one another as they engage in discussions about menstruation and the agonies of childbirth. The play dedicates importance to the shared experiences of women, particularly during a period in which they received minimal sympathy for their struggles. 


As the play concludes and the women prepare their return to domestic chores, one remarks that the day was a pleasant break from her housework. Their return to domestic chores after making such a significant decision in a position of authority foreign to them is a depressing indication of how women were valued in this period. The Welkin is a hugely entertaining and saddening story which is being performed at the Lyttleton theatre in London until the 23rd May.


The Welkin will be broadcast at over 700 UK cinemas from the 21st May 2020


Katie McAree, Parmiters School