Sabbat - Pendle Witch Trial drama returns to The Dukes, Lancaster to mark 400th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 00:49 05 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:35 20 February 2013

Christine Mackie, who plays Alic Nutter, looks towards Pendle Hill

Christine Mackie, who plays Alic Nutter, looks towards Pendle Hill

The 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials heralds the return of a hugely successful stage drama. Louise Bryning reports

The print version of this article appeared in the July 2012 issue of Lancashire Life
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Midway between the castle where the Lancashire Witches were tried and the hilltop where they were executed is a theatre which is telling their story this summer. The Dukes in Lancaster is also next door to the pub in Moor Lane where legend has it the witches had their final drink before facing the gallows.

With Lancasters many connections to the single biggest witchcraft trial in the UK, its little wonder that when The Dukes first staged the play Sabbat in 2009, it enjoyed a recordbreaking run. Three years later, as the county commemorates the 400th anniversary of the witch trials, The Dukes hopes the revival of the human drama behind this historic event will be equally compelling.

Just as in 2009, Sabbat will be staged in The Round at The Dukes, the ultimate intimate theatre experience. But unlike first time around, once its initial nine-day run at the Lancaster theatre has ended, Sabbat will go on tour, taking top class drama to the home towns of many new audiences. The two other Lancashire venues which will be hosting Sabbat are Hoghton Tower and Colne Muni.

Hoghton Tower has its own connection to the witch trials as it was famously visited by King James I who, when not knighting loins of beef, was busy stamping out witchcraft and even wrote a book on the subject. And the Muni Theatre is right at the heart of Lancashire Witch country.
Sabbat tells a human story set against a climate of fear and superstition. It begins with a secret meeting the Sabbat held high on a hill in Pendle and ends on another hill, in Lancaster, where ten are hanged for witchcraft.

The play imagines the events leading up to the trial and execution of the witches and asks whether Alice Nutter and her other acquaintances really were witches or innocent victims at a time of paranoia.

The story is one very familiar to Sabbats director, Amy Leach, as she hails from Darwen. We used to have two stuffed witches in our hallway! said Amy.

In 2009, Sabbat was Amys directorial debut at The Dukes, the Lancaster theatre she had visited many times as a youngster. Although the original creative team remains the same, there will be two new members of the four-strong cast.

Im really excited about doing Sabbat again and taking it on tour, said Amy. Its amazing what effect being surrounded by that real sense of history has on a play.

Touring Sabbat across Lancashire and then beyond to The New Vic near Stoke and the Orange Tree at Richmond, Surrey, will bring its own challenges for The Dukes production and operations manager, John Newman-Holden.

We want the audience to feel like theyve stepped back into the 17th Century, said John.

The advantage of staging plays in the round is that the audience are no more than three rows away from the action so they feel really involved. Theres nowhere for the actors to hide.

One of the actors whos used to being up close to her audience is Christine Mackie who will be reviving her role of Alice Nutter, just weeks after filming an episode of Downton Abbey in which shes already appeared twice.

Christine has lived in Lancaster since 1988 so is well aware of the citys connection to the witch trials.

Sabbat is not just an old story or a Lancaster story, its bigger than that. A lot of people across the world believe in witchcraft so its very much current news.

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