Interview: Rona Munro, of Scotland and witchcraft, 2009

18th August 2009

Scottish playwright Rona Munro’s latest drama, The Last Witch, explores the case of Janet Horne, who was burned at the stake in 1727. Ahead of its Edinburgh Festival run she explains why she found the story so irresistible. First published Aug 18, 2009. Daily Telegraph.

Scanning a crowded Traverse bar in search of Rona Munro, I realise with mounting alarm that I have no clear idea of what she looks like. I’ve been carrying around a vague preconception based chiefly on her reputation as “one of Scotland’s most respected women playwrights” – with a formidable back-catalogue of work (more than 30 plays, dating back to the early 80s). The last Festival show of hers that got everyone talking was the chilling Iron (2002) – about a mother serving a life-sentence for murder. This year she’s working with the Traverse’s new artistic director Dominic Hill on a premiere at the International Festival that, on paper, fairly screams “feminist drama”: The Last Witch.

It’s not as if I’m looking for a woman brandishing a broomstick but I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been met with an icy blast of Celtic aloofness. So it comes as a mighty relief when I finally stumble upon a petite, bright-eyed woman radiating down-to-earth conviviality. Raised in Aberdeen, now resident in London, the 49-year-old is itching to dash off to the train-station in order to get to Glasgow, where rehearsals for another new work of hers – a radical update of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba – are in full swing.

If she didn’t have such fiercely competing claims on her time, though, I’m left in little doubt that she’d happily chat all day about a subject that has engrossed her for the last year and was brewing away as a potential drama for a good five years before that.

The Last Witch sees Munro applying her imagination to a historical enigma. The surviving facts of the last witch-burning in Britain are scant. In 1727, a woman known as Janet Horne (itself a name commonly ascribed to witches) was burnt in the seaside town of Dornoch in the Highlands – a place that gained some contemporary notoriety, because it was here that Madonna married Guy Ritchie. The key record of her death was written 60 years after the event and didn’t go into the substance of the accusations against her.

Instead it left one nugget of information that Munro has seized on with the fervency of a gold-prospector unearthing something gleaming in a pan of silt. “It said that when they showed her the fire, she held her hands out to it and said: ‘That’s a bonny warming.'”

That presented Munro with a choice. “You could read that in two ways. Either it suggested a poor soul driven out of her wits or that was an incredibly defiant thing to do.” She opted to elaborate on the latter. “I see her as being an incredibly charismatic, strong-willed and annoying character. In any community, you get those domineering types who tend to drive everyone mad. They’re unsympathetic and yet quite heroic.”

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible stands as the most lauded modern drama about witch-trials. Munro was determined not to repeat his approach to the subject. “I wanted to do something different. What The Crucible does very effectively is give you a sense of a whole community gripped by hysteria. I thought: wouldn’t it be interesting if it was just one powerful individual in the community challenging another and it became a struggle between the two? In small rural communities you can often get that kind of scenario.”

Having studied history at Edinburgh university, Munro’s passion for the wider context of the period makes the piece a perfect fit for the International Festival’s “Enlightenment” theme this year. “What’s important to remember is that Scotland was a well-educated country,” she says, “yet even lawyers believed in the supernatural at this point. It wasn’t ignorant peasants running around with torches. Janet Horne was unfortunate. The law making witchcraft illegal was repealed in 1736. If they had left her alone for another nine years she would have been alright. Her case happens in a period of immense transition.”

Which brings one to the f-word. Is this a feminist reading of the story? Munro pauses and smiles. “Until feminist historians came along, witches weren’t taken seriously as a subject but then you had the pendulum going the other way and they became this bunch of women who were slaughtered just for being women. That was a necessary counter-argument. Now I think it’s interesting to look for a more nuanced centre-ground.”

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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