Digital theatre has evolved rapidly over the last two years – initially as a response to the pandemic, but also because it has provided theatre companies with access to wider audiences and huge scope for creative innovation. This is an exciting time for digital theatre, but also pioneer territory, full of unknowns, experiments and challenges to the status quo. Joining the audience for Creation Theatre’s latest show, The Witch of Edmonton, I decided to embrace this spirit – because new ideas can take time to hone.
Tickets come in the form of a link, which is activated in advance to provide a second link. This takes you into a virtual ‘auditorium’ – an acknowledgement that you are part of a live audience, about to watch a live performance in real time. I think digital theatre’s biggest challenge comes from the ‘norms’ of other screen-based entertainment (TV, film, YouTube, etc) – on demand, slickly produced and easy to pause. Creation’s virtual auditorium is a lovely way to gently remind you that this is a different kind of screen experience, subtly implying that the rules of traditional theatre still apply (if you’re late you’ll miss the start, if you pop to the loo you’ll miss the story, and if you’re busy munching noisy food there’s no rewinding to listen again). Being asked to be ‘present’ in front of a screen changes the dynamic: we remained in seats, quiet, with other devices set aside. It’s also important to note that Creation have a team on hand, should you experience any tech troubles – we got an instant response, and it solved our issue.
The Witch of Edmonton tells the tale of a downtrodden woman, Elizabeth Sawyer, who is accused of being a witch. Misfortunes befall her community – murder, madness, crop failure – and we see how each of these events ends up being attributed to ‘witchcraft’. Her pitiful state – destitute, older, mentally unwell – fit the definition of ‘witch’. It is a horrible trap she cannot escape. The story is interwoven with accounts of ‘witches’ from historic records – each blamed for the ill fortunes of those around them, and sentenced to death. What struck me was how no other explanations were offered – these women offered their societies the comforting sense that their challenges could be solved. But there was also the strong sense that ‘witches’ existed in the sense that, with such widespread belief, they became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – women trying out a bit of ‘witchcraft’ (i.e. poking pins in an effigy), perhaps in the hope that it really would help. And belief in the existence of the devil/demons/Satan provides a framework for the delusions of the mentally ill – priming them, almost, to meet the definition of ‘witch’.
It’s a fascinating subject matter, and one that appears to be having a ‘moment’ in culture (e.g. the BBC’s new comedy, The Witchfinder). I can’t help but wonder if this reflects our contemporary challenges around truth, conspiracy theories and online ‘witch hunts’ – with innocent people still suffering great harms because others have constructed distorted narratives about them.
Creatively, digital offers audiences new ways to experience live shows – such as intense close ups of actors (used to great effect by Anna Tolputt in her portrayal of Elizabeth Sawyer). Layered visuals act as a wonderful way to ‘experience’ characters’ delusions – we get to see and hear as they do, whilst also watching their response. There is a fluidity to the rapid scene changes which would be trickier in a physical environment, and the use of techniques from other screen crafts opens up new ways to switch between narratives.
The production is not without its awkward moments – but for me, these highlight the unique challenges of live digital theatre. For example, actors’ need to hit their marks is heightened by the way digital backgrounds work (as many of us will have found on Zoom calls over the last few years). I feel it’s important to support new theatre of this sort – and to bring an open-minded and pro-experimental attitude as an audience member. Yes, The Witch of Edmonton is a striking bit of theatre, exploring incredibly interesting and timely themes – but it’s also a brave and bold piece of creative innovation, and as such will be paving the way for other exciting shows to come.