Sweet Werks on Middle Street is a tight and intimate space, well-suited to the action of Sisterhood, which is set in a prison cell sometime during the 15th-16th centuries when witch hunts, sparked by moral panics, blazed through Europe. The prisoners, awaiting their deaths by burning, punishment for casting curses and spells, are three women representing different stages of womanhood: Kitty (Coco Maertens), young and unworldly; Alice (Jolie Booth), of early middle years, without children but not by choice; and Marjorie (Jules Craig), post-menopausal and so ‘invisible’, and a wise-woman. They wait; talk; tell their stories, how each came to be condemned; share their views and what they understand about their world; and with gentle calmness, humour even, comfort and support each other, despite their differences.
It is not difficult to notice the continuations of women’s experiences reverberating through the centuries
The action is periodically interrupted as individually each woman steps forward. The light dims and the fluorescent face paint they wear, only now visible, signifies a shift to the 21st century. The woman throws a ball of yarn to an audience member, but holds onto the thread; and so, with a domestic object, long associated with women, a connection is made. But also, a yarn is a story to tell, and so it is the 21st century women tell theirs. And in each telling, it is not difficult to notice the continuations of women’s experiences reverberating through the centuries and how it is still quite possible to find oneself hanging around in a cell, be that physical or mental, condemned and judged.
Although all three women are childless, the concept of motherhood is an important thread in the play. Marjorie, the most philosophical of the women, she’s had a lifetime to consider her views, is inspired by Julian of Norwich, an anchorite, whose mystical theology compared divine love to motherly love, and viewed God as both mother and father; and also, Mary, mother of Jesus, who sees everything below her ‘as small as a hazelnut’. And talking of mothers: there’s Mother Earth, a fourth character in the play, resplendent, green flowing clothes and a face adorned with crystals, in the front corner of the set, overseeing all with beautiful percussion, singing bowls and bells; she might be overlooked but she’s always there.
As well as the percussion, effects such as bird song and soft drones were unobtrusive but well placed and hugely atmospheric adding to the drama and the tension. The same can be said for the lighting. The set was simple but very effective: a cell door, a stained-glass window, a back-lit symbol.
The actors’ performances were excellent and convincing. The timing and pacing of the action created tension and also allowed the audience to immerse themselves in the predicaments of the characters. For all the bleakness of the women’s situations, there was ultimately a message of hope, both articulated and realised by Marjorie, that an individual always has a choice, however limited and constrained the choices might indeed be, and it is possible to take at least some control.
The slightly weaker parts of the production were the 21st century digressions. Nothing wrong with the idea or execution; but perhaps the stories the women tell could have been honed more, made to have more impact. Otherwise, the well-written script was strong, nuanced and subtle and it, along with the production, has been provoking plenty of thought here.