Lyric Drama Studio, Belfast
26 to 30 March 2019
The shattering of normality by the intervention of a mysterious outsider is a familiar and effective dramatic device. Much of the enduring appeal of Howard Richardson and William Berney’s lusty clash of religious fundamentalism with otherworldly paganism lies in its double-sided mirror image of social disruption on both the bright and dark sides of the moon.
High on a desolate craggy ridge in the Great Smoky Mountains of the Appalachians, the supernatural world plays out its own version of ordinary everyday life. Under a burnished ochre moon, storms threaten, eagles soar and young witches seduce, gambol and make mischief. The main objects of their malevolent fun are the clod-hopping human occupants of the valley below.
Buck Creek is home to a God-fearing backwoods community, steeped in superstition and prejudice. Temptations of the flesh simmer, sexual suppression taints the air and the ever-present terror of witchcraft haunts the collective imagination.
The storyline follows the lyrics of the popular old folk song, The Ballad of Barbara Allen. The two protagonists are John, a handsome, rebellious witch boy, and Barbara, a girl whose beauty drives men wild with desire and women wild with jealousy. Both have grown up in the strict rules and rituals of their respective backgrounds but are hell bent on breaking the mould. John’s birthright forbids him from interaction with humans; Barbara’s perceived sin lies in her refusal to surrender her comely body to the conventions of marriage and child rearing.
Striding across his lofty eyrie one sunny day, John spots Barbara in the valley and is lost. She has unwittingly entered his consciousness and changed his life forever. In spite of dire warnings from the witch girls, he persuades the Conjur Man and Woman to change him into human form so that he can pursue her. They do so with the pledge that if she is unfaithful to him within a year, terrible revenge will descend.
Into the town swaggers Callum Payne’s magnetic young venturer, wresting Ellie McCay’s defiant Barbara from the amorous attentions of Joe Loane’s earnest Marvin with a single, smouldering look and a snap of supernatural trickery. In that moment, the play’s double-edged stranger danger is set in motion, casting instant fear for the future happiness of this daring, ecstatic young couple.
Philip Crawford’s meticulously crafted production comes furnished with the high quality excellence of the Lyric’s in-house design and lighting team. It resounds to the peculiar sing-song cadences of the Appalachian dialect, adeptly managed by a disciplined and cohesive ensemble cast. It rings to the haunting strains of fiddle and banjo, of voices raised in song and hymns of praise played on a wheezy pedal organ.
While suspicion and accusation mount, the moon waxes ominously. Storm clouds gather over Barbara’s unwholesome pregnancy and the worrying behaviour of her strange husband. The young cast confidently handle the uncomfortable plot turns, which are unsparing in exposing the nauseating religious hypocrisy of a community which praises God at every hand’s turn and uses faith as affirmation. A revival meeting reaches fever pitch as pious worshippers morph into a lynch mob aflame with sexual hysteria, urging on the degrading humiliation that will be Barbara’s spiritual redemption.
The full circle of the Conjur Woman’s curse is quietly and sweetly drawn, leading inexorably into John’s metamorphosis from loving human being to dare devil witch boy, returning in triumph to the world from whence he came.
This is a challenging play for a young cast. It carries strong thematic echoes of The Crucible alongside the ever-present danger of slipping into Oklahoma musical territory. Mercifully, Crawford’s dark, edgy production offers parallel themes for today’s conflicted world, cleaving purposefully to Arthur Miller and leaving Rodgers and Hammerstein in its wake.