Tracey Norman is the writer and creator of the hugely successful play 'Witch' and resides in Devon U.K. Written in 2016, this powerful play is based on the compelling true story of Deanes Grimmertons and include the transcript of the 17th Century Witch trial. Claire Barrand interviewed Tracey about the inspiration behind the play.
Your play Witch has been hugely successful, and I believe has surpassed your expectations of it only lasting one season! Congratulations and tell us more about Witch!
Thank you! Yes, WITCH has really surprised me and has led on to so many other wonderful and unexpected things. It’s set loosely in the late 1500s and tells the story of a destitute widow, Margery Scrope, who has been accused of witchcraft by her neighbour Thomas Latimer. His daughter has died, and his son is ill, and he believes that Margery is responsible. They are both brought before Sir William Tyrell, the local landowner/magistrate. He has been going through his papers for the day and, in amongst the cases of theft, brawling, and immorality, he finds Latimer’s accusation. Having never dealt with such a case before, he is intrigued. A discussion ensues about Latimer’s evidence while Sir William weighs up what he hears and makes a decision about how the case should proceed. The play was written as a discussion piece, so it asks far more questions than it answers and, ultimately, it is for the audience to decide … is she, or isn’t she?
What was the inspiration behind Witch?
I graduated from the OU in 2015 with a First Class Honours degree in History and wanted to do something useful with it. Some friends and I had just started Circle of Spears Productions, an indie audio production house and theatre company, and I thought I would write a piece of theatre for us, something which actually put my degree to practical use. I really wanted to capture an obscure moment in history, bring it to life and make it more accessible. I eventually settled on dramatizing a witch trial, so I approached the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, explained what I was doing and asked if they had any trial transcripts I could work from. They were incredibly supportive from the outset – and still are – and introduced me to a Lyme Regis housewife called Deanes Grimmerton, who had been accused of witchcraft in 1687.
The case appealed to me immediately because there was no devil-pact, no familiar, no covens or broomsticks. It was a story about people. Grimmerton had been accused after a mundane, everyday action – sharing a pipe of tobacco with three neighbours. One of them, a young man named Nathaniel Scorch, subsequently fell ill and his father Richard laid a complaint against Grimmerton, along with his wife Elizabeth, Nathaniel himself and a widow named Mary Tilman. Mary believed her daughter Elizabeth had also been bewitched by Grimmerton back in 1682; she suffered from fits and saw apparitions, much like Nathaniel, eventually succumbing to her affliction in 1685. Grimmerton was arrested and imprisoned in Dorchester Gaol, and her case proceeded to the Dorchester Assize a couple of months later.
All I had to work from were copies of four handwritten sheets of witness evidence. There was no indication of a verdict, no indication of a plea having been entered. There was nothing of Deanes as a woman other than the very two-dimensional view of her that could be gleaned from the evidence. And while her story was utterly compelling, I knew that it wouldn’t work in the way I had originally imagined – there just wasn’t enough information. So I started researching around the subject, cherry-picking the best – and worst – examples of other people’s experiences, which became my character Margery Scrope. I made a deliberate choice to set the play 100 years earlier, as I am far more knowledgeable about Tudor history and was already aware of many of the social issues from that time period, which I was able to weave into the narrative. Subjects such as the rise of Protestantism, land enclosures, the treatment of the poor and the treatment of women are all examined alongside the witchcraft accusation. In fact, witchcraft itself is only mentioned a couple of times in the play. Just as Deanes’s case was based on a simple, everyday action, the trigger in Margery’s case is the fact that she gave Latimer’s son Nathaniel a toothache cure. Elizabeth Tilman’s story becomes that of Alice Latimer, and Nathaniel Scorch’s story becomes Nathaniel Latimer’s. I was particularly keen to include the one instance of reported speech in the case when Deanes apparently accosted Elizabeth Tilman and “abused her in words” – Latimer describes an encounter between Margery and his daughter Alice and I gave Margery Deanes’s words.
Why do you think historical Witch trials such as the Gimmerton case, make for such fascinating stories today?
Cases like Deanes’s give us an unprecedented glimpse into the way our ancestors lived, what they believed, how they dealt with social issues and how they interacted with each other on a personal level. Reading the witness evidence in this particular case is like looking directly into the past – the people involved were clearly very familiar with one another and, in the case of Mary Tilman, there must have been undercurrents of tension or bad feeling between herself and Deanes for some time. But it also hints at other things – Deanes’s status, for example. She was not destitute, and she was married. She had sufficient tobacco to share it with her neighbours. She is described by Nathaniel as “walking into the house in which he was working,”,” so, unless she was incredibly rude, or the “house” was used either wholly or partially for a trade, there is, again, the inference of familiarity. But for me, the most compelling things about her story is that it is the story of people and what they are capable of doing to each other. It’s the story of people’s beliefs. In many ways, it is the story of injustice, particularly in respect of Mary Tilman, who clearly had not had closure following her daughter’s death. It is also the story of the thousands of women – and men – worldwide who went through the same terrible experience as Deanes. It demonstrates where we have come from and how far we have progressed in the ensuing 400 years – which, surprisingly, is actually not that far when you get down to grassroots level and look at how minorities are treated today.
What are peoples reactions to the play?
People have been overwhelmingly positive about the play right from the outset. We celebrated WITCH’s second birthday in April by performing to two groups of History students at Bristol University, where the performance was a formal seminar in two-degree courses – that was one of the most surprising and unexpected paths WITCH has led me to! We have collected a wealth of audience feedback which shows that it affects people deeply and stimulates discussion. I have had people contact me to say that they have been inspired to look into similar cases in their own area. It has been described as “utterly compelling,”,” “powerful” and “thought-provoking.” We’ve had a teacher in the audience who told us that every Year 9 student should see it and another who booked us for his school after seeing our second performance. We’ve had repeat bookings by another university. We have a running tally of people who have been openly moved to tears, and I have recently been contacted by someone who asked when we were next performing in Boscastle so that they could organise their holiday around the performance. I honestly can’t think of a better compliment.
Where can we see Witch performed?
At the moment, we have four performances scheduled. It premiered in the library at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic – the first piece of live theatre they had had there – and we have been honoured to have been invited back every year since 2016. The play was written specifically for performance in the museum library, so every time we go back, it’s like returning home. We’re there for three performances this summer: Saturday 21st July, Wednesday 15th August and Saturday 8th September, all at 7.30pm. We are also delighted to have been invited to Folk Horror Revival’s Witch Cults 2018 event in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Saturday 14th July, which is our most northerly venue to date. We’re performing at 7pm.
There is also an audio version of the play on CD or download, featuring the original cast and exclusively available from Circle of Spears Productions’s webstore.
I regularly give talks on the case – I absolutely love sharing Deanes’s story with others and seeing the different ways it inspires and fascinates people. I’m giving a series of talks with my husband, folklorist Mark Norman, in September, for Hillingdon Libraries in London – one of the talks. “In the Footsteps of the Invisible Witch” will be about Deanes.
Have you a book planned and what can you tell us about it?
Yes, I am working on a book at the moment. After the play was written and we had started performing it, I just couldn’t let Deanes go. Her story was so incomplete, and I desperately wanted to know what had happened to her. I started digging around in various archives and soon found that thanks to the joys of non-standard spelling, Deanes went by a number of surnames in official records. When I wrote the play, the only name I had was “Gimmerton.” It got to the point when I would type it into Google in search of something new, and nine of the first ten responses were my own website, which was pretty frustrating. Once I had discovered “Grimmerton,” I found out a little more – and since then, I have discovered at least six other variations. I have been piecing together Deanes’s story as best I can, given the age of the case and the paucity of historical records. My aim with the book is to present her story in its entirety in the one place, explain how she inspired me and use both her story and Margery’s to examine some of the issues raised in the play. The book is due out late this year or early 2019 and will be published by Troy Books in Cornwall.
What do you write about in your blog and where can we follow that?
You can find my blog at www.traceynormanswitch.com – I share snippets of my research and news about where the show is heading next, as well as amusing incidents that happen along the way, such as my apparent inability to navigate the (seemingly) hundreds of reception desks at The National Archives. There are cast photos on the website and a list of past and future performances – Newcastle will be our 57th performance since July 2016.
What are your plans for future projects?
At the moment, I am mainly focussing on the book, but I have plans for a schools package for WITCH and would like to turn the play into a film at some point in the not-too-distant fu