*Trigger warning*: This review discusses abusive relationships, drug use, racism and slavery.
Fury Theatre is a female led theatre company which focuses on the female experience. Their new production, ABIGAIL, is a work in progress piece which had its first showing at The Space last week. We were invited to their opening performance to get a first look at this thought-provoking new play, inspired by the Salem Witch Trials.
Written by Laura Turner and Steve Gillard, ABIGAIL centres on real life accuser, Abigail Williams (played by co-writer Laura Turner). Although described as a retelling of the Salem Witch Trials, the story actually starts after the trials, following Abigail as she tries to navigate her way through life after escaping from Salem to Boston with friend, Mercy (Lucy Sheree Cooper). With little known about what really happened to Abigail in the aftermath of the trials (other than a disputed belief that she died young while working as a prostitute), the play imagines just what might have happened to this young woman haunted by her past and frightened for her future.
The play explores a range of themes including coercive control, white privilege, slavery, drug addiction, the bisexual experience and the treatment of women in the justice system. This may sound like an awful lot to pack into a single play and it is. Consequently, it feels long but some themes and storylines remain underdeveloped, particularly the issue of racism, which is only really touched on quite suddenly towards the end. It feels as if this is the result of a change to the script during the development process, with the original intention being to explore Abigail’s relationship with an Afro-Caribbean slave named Tituba. Retaining this character might have given more scope to develop this theme throughout the piece, giving greater weight to the later scenes.
Instead, we see Abigail haunted by Solvi (Sophie Jane Corner), an apparently white slave of indeterminate ancestry. The scenes between Abigail and Solvi are among the strongest in the play, giving us an insight into Abigail’s motivations for accusing Solvi of witchcraft and a sense that the thing that frightens Abigail the most is herself. Everything Abigail does in her new life in Boston brings back the memories of her old life in Salem, but we only ever see glimpses of this fascinating relationship and many questions remain unanswered. It’s the most compelling element of the production and would make for an interesting play all on its own but instead it only really forms the background to the main storyline about Abigail’s new life.
That main story could really be told in isolation, without any reference to the Salem Witch Trials. Indeed, it might well be stronger for it, as it’s the attempt to link the two which doesn’t quite come off. Having found her way to a boarding house/brothel, Abigail seemingly falls in love with barmaid and prostitute, Milly (Sarah Isabell). Yet it’s not really apparent that there is anything brewing between Abigail and Milly until it’s pointed out by other characters. The inclusion of this relationship feels like an attempt to connect Abigail’s past and present without really considering whether it really adds much to the story. As written, there is also a slightly uncomfortable underlying narrative that same-sex relationships between women arise largely because men are awful.
Talking of awful men, the other element of the play which is done incredibly well is the development of Abigail’s relationship with the charming yet dangerous Jack (James Green), a pimp who lures both Abigail and Mercy in with kindness, gin and laudanum, before showing them his true nature. A frighteningly timeless tale, it’s really quite horrible to watch in places, with scenes of sexual violence played out graphically on stage. Some viewers might find it too much but it is certainly a powerful choice which viscerally demonstrates what lies behind the charismatic facade of so many domestic abusers.
Overall, there is clear potential for a very good play (or two) here. Perhaps overly ambitious, it would benefit from a streamlined script and a more clear focus, but there is much to commend already and we look forward to seeing where Fury Theatre take ABIGAIL next. If you haven’t seen it, there is still time to catch it online.
ABIGAIL played live at The Space, Isle of Dogs, from 3 to 7 May 2022. It was also livestreamed on 5 May and remains available to stream for two weeks. We received a complimentary ticket for the performance on 3 May.