The name Abigail Williams has become almost synonymous with the Salem Witch Trails in Massachusetts. History tells us that this 11 or 12 year-old child was the first to falsely accuse their neighbors of witchcraft in 1692. Arthur Miller put Abigail Williams at the heart of his 1953 play The Crucible, ageing her to 17 and fictionalising an affair with local farmer John Proctor to motivate her accusations.
In a new play, Abigail, writers Stephen Gillard & Laura Turner posit what may have happened to Abigail Williams following the turbulent events of the Salem Witch Trials. Historical records are scant with a mere suggestion that she ran away fled to Boston, having stolen a large sum of money from her uncle and died there aged 18 as a prostitute. This imagined history sets out to fill in the blanks.
Abigail and her sister Mercy arrive in Boston seeking a new adventure, determined to start afresh. Immediately we sense the vulnerability of the two young women. As they had ‘stolen’ two gold candlesticks and money from their uncle, they have to lie low and not draw attention, especially to the law. As such, they are forced to stay in Mrs Constance’s self-proclaimed “fine, upstanding” boarding house where her instruction that she “don’t tolerate no funny business” is undercut by some extremely loud sex on the premises. They are befriended by Jack, a seemingly friendly face in this unfamiliar world – ignoring Marshall Joshua Goodman’s warnings about him.
When their money goes ‘missing’ courtesy of their sticky-fingered landlady, their situation becomes more perilous, leaving them more susceptible to further abuse. A coercive journey that introduces them first to gin then to laudanum manipulates their situation to a dark place where sexual violence occurs.
Abigail is packed with intriguing and complex themes that are sensitively explored. The notion of power (or lack thereof) is threaded through the drama. Abigail was elevated to a position of power briefly in the Witch trials before the play starts. We sense the vilification this young woman had experienced given her urgent flight from Salem into an uncertain future with negligible legal protection or security of her own. Contemporary parallels abound of successful young women being hounded by a society delighting in their fall (*cough* Britney Spears).
The antagonist Jack personifies the danger that lies behind surface charm. Offering a safe port in a storm when the two women arrive in Boston, he is quietly manipulative and systematically sets about leading them down a path of exploitation he has chosen for them. In small choices, he decreases their power by removing options available to them and dividing their loyalties from each other. The women’s isolation further increases his abusive treatment, both psychologically as well as physically. It’s a chilling study in well-practiced control.
Even the Marshall, whose intentions appear to be good, has his own issue regarding the power of authority. He tries to warn Abigail that Jack is not to be trusted – even going so far as to name him as a woman beater. When Abigail refuses to listen to his council, his benevolence turns sharply into something more threatening. “I represent the law in this town and people would do well to listen to when I speak” he snaps, demanding his privilege is respected.
What Abigail does well is giving a sense quite how fragile that female agency is in this world. Mercy’s trusting nature is extinguished by a violent rape. Mrs Constance steals from and betrays women under her roof as she understands the tenuous power dynamic that requires money for a non-white woman to maintain any semblance of status.
The emotional through line of the play’s central character is well executed. Abigail is presented as a complex and flawed protagonist. While she seeks a fresh start following the witch trials, she is literally haunted by what she has done. Solvi, one of those Abigail had accused as a witch, is a constant presence, pricking Abigail’s conscience to the point where she acknowledges to herself “I betrayed her”. Casting Abigail as both victim and victimiser, the play makes a strong case for coercive control being a learned behaviour.
While the script is beautifully poetic in places, it also ambles at times when it needs to run. Overburdened by perhaps too many themes, the dramatic momentum stalls in favour of more discursive ruminations. Some judicious pruning of several scenes would certainly focus the message of the work. Additionally, there are misjudgments in terms of direction. Early scenes ramp up shouting to an unnecessary volume (compounded by not the greatest sound quality on the live stream) leaving little room to build the drama to a climax. Giving the character of Solvi stereotypically witch-like traits, right down to a cackle, strikes particularly contrary to the grounded truth of the story they are telling in Abigail.
These criticisms aside, the cast do impressive work. Laura Turner is compelling as the title character, embodying the journey from closed-down denial and naivety to self-understanding and acceptance. Sophie Kamal offers a fabulous and funny grotesque as Mrs Constance before an impassioned eleventh-hour insight that grounds the character in her own trap of abuse and prejudice. James Green expertly peels away the layers of the charismatic Jack to reveal the rotten, exploitative misogyny at his characters core. Even in a small role as The Marshall, Nathan Haymer-Bates impresses with a precipitous exposure of a toxic masculinity and entitlement just below the veneer of a seemingly thoughtful surface.
Premiering at The Space Theatre in a week where the subject of women’s body autonomy hit the headlines around the world, Abigail‘s feminist reimagining of Abigail Williams’ story couldn’t be more timely. With an abundance of ideas and a strong cast, this new drama just needs some honing to develop it into the powerful work it could be.
The Recs gives Abigail a solid ★★★ 3 stars