Many a Victorian novel (see, especially, Dickens) would conclude with an overview chapter showing what became of the various characters after the main body of the narrative finishes; it’s not particularly an idea that has frequently been used in drama. Did Beatrice and Benedick live happily ever after; exactly what happened to Eliza Doolittle after she learned to speak like a lady? Abigail Williams might be said to be the source of much of the trouble that occurs in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Her false testimony, jealousy and spiteful accusations lead to the execution of a number of the townspeople of Salem in the early 1690s; at the end of the play, she flees. So, what happens to her next? Stephen Gillard and Laura Turner’s play Abigail follows the young woman to Boston and the lure of the big (by those day’s standards) city. Abigail existed in real life and there is an apocryphal tale that she did exactly this, but here, the writers have combined this notion while choosing to follow Miller’s template for the character and thrown her into a number of new situations where she soon gets out of her depth.
Abigail takes with her the naïve but loyal Mercy Lewis, and it is not long before they find themselves attacked by the human wolves that roam Boston. In quick succession unhygienic lodgings, drunkenness, laudanum consumption, prostitution, rape, physical, mental and verbal violence, coercive control, an unresponsive justice system and even murder follow – though not necessarily in that order. It’s a bleak catalogue of degradation and despair particularly when putative mansplaining saviour Jack turns out to be the worst of a very bad bunch. And while it’s mostly the result of the established and increasingly flourishing white patriarchal system, the almost Fagin like Mrs Constance is no help either. The ambivalence we might feel for the central character in Miller’s original portrayal becomes rather more loaded in this modern development.
Is all this too much? Probably. In essence the writers need to decide whether they want to tell Abigail’s story or draw attention to modern day parallels. Of course, a piece of drama can easily do both at once; after all Miller’s original was making huge contemporary political points at the same time as telling an historical story. But here, the piece is in danger of becoming a tick list of the ways men abuse women; important though that undoubtedly is, the overabundance of degradations sets up a law of diminishing returns. A paring down and the economic sketching of ideas would move the narrative along more successfully and leave room for better development and exploration of character. I also think the writing and direction could leave a little more work for the audience to do in forming its own conclusions. Trying to have a character bare their soul while another couple are rogering away furiously in the background is distracting to say the least and doesn’t credit the audience with the ability to infer what is going on. Revisions such as this might also shorten and sharpen the piece which would be another bonus.
Co-author Laura Turner is a commanding and confident presence as Abigail who is not prepared to accept the current way of the world and is ready to take it on headfirst. Turner presents the character spiritedly and with an eye to her backstory – is this explained sufficiently for those not already in the know? Doubtful. Particularly strong are the scenes she has with the enigmatic figure of Solvi who acts as her conscience/accuser especially as these parts of the play are reflective rather than narratively driven. Sophie Jane Corner brings an eerily appropriate level of other worldliness to the part both in her physicality and her vocal choices and the different tone in which these scenes are written and presented lift the play to a more interesting level. The men (James Green and Nathan Haymer-Bates) are somewhat one dimensional but that’s acceptable in the spirt of the piece. I would have liked a rather more rounded figure in Sophie Kamal’s ironically named Mrs Constance and a better understanding of her motivation other than that it is all for money. Sarah Isbell and Lucy Sheree Cooper have the somewhat thankless task of portraying the victims of the system and do well within the confines of that somewhat narrow brief.
A note in the programme states “This is the first sharing of a piece in development” so it would be unfair to judge this play as the finished article. I hope Fury Theatre will accept the comments made in the spirit of constructive criticism; that is certainly how they are intended. I think they have an interesting premise at the heart of this piece and hope they can streamline their product, so they get the attention they undoubtedly deserve.