BRIGHTON — For people travelling to this year’s Witchfest in Brighton, there will be additional entertainment option: the premiere of the play Doreen: An English Witch. This new theatrical production is the brainchild of director Roman Withers and writer Gavin Caine of Normal People Productions. The Wild Hunt caught up with Caine and Withers to talk about the play, its impact, and the creative process that led to its birth.
Withers explained how a meeting with the late John Belham Payne inspired the very latest celebration of Valiente’s life:
“We met John Belham Payne last November, as he was the Head of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, and knew Doreen, so I decided it would be really good to put a play on. We’re both in the craft ourselves and it seemed only fitting as Doreen lived in Brighton and spent many, many years here.”
The play Doreen: An English Witch is the second outing of Normal People Productions, an up and coming new theatre company. As Withers says, “It was only founded about a year-and-a-half ago and this is our second show. Our first show was last year, that was called Cabalesque – which luckily was sold out. That was a combination of cabaret and burlesque that went down last December and will be performed again at Brighton Fringe next year.”
Withers continued on to say, “This is our second play and we’ve got a couple more lined up for next year. But this one has been quite hard work. It’s been intriguing but it’s taken all year to go from start to finish, so it’s taken a lot of time but it’s been very enjoyable.’
The company is keen to stress that it wished to avoid a documentary-style showing and have described their latest effort as covering “certain stories and things that are said or remembered about Doreen.” Writer Gavin Caine says, “We wanted to include things that are told of her, some of the better-known and lesser-known stories of her life.
“We’re not trying to replicate Doreen herself, or do a documentary piece. It’s a work of fiction inspired by a magnificent woman with stories about her that are known by quite a lot of people, or known by fewer people and that are quite interesting or funny.”
Withers adds, “The play covers some of Doreen’s stories, obviously, but it doesn’t cover all of them as there’s about 30 or 40 stories that we could have used, so we had to break it down a little bit. I like to think we’ve picked the best ones and the ones that express how Doreen went about her daily life.”
The play is set in Doreen’s flat, and Withers explains that it begins with Doreen (Sharon Drain) hosting an interview with someone, a young lady (Charlotte Dearing), and the things that follow from that.
Caine and Withers have gone to great lengths to ensure the play is a fitting tribute to the first lady of the Craft but also wanted to make sure it was accessible for non-pagans. Withers says, “When the play was written, we had to make sure that non-craft people would enjoy it as well. I would like to think that the story has been done well, so that if people didn’t know who Doreen Valiente was they can still follow it and enjoy it. There are quite a lot of funny moments in it as well, so I hope we’ve found the find balance between that.”
Caine adds, “It’s trying to find that balance between the Pagans and particularly the Wiccans, because obviously that’s the legacy that we know best, of Doreen and to understand, but that it’s also accessible to people who are not into that area of witchcraft or paganism or any area of witchcraft or paganism to be able to come and see the play and get something from it, and go away from it having learned something and enjoyed it.”
Withers and Caine have been keen to represent, in some way, all aspects of Doreen’s work in the performance. As an example, Caine says, “We […] wanted to give air to some of Doreen’s poetry, which she always thought her best work and which I love and many others do.”
Doreen’s ritual work is also referred to in the play. As Caine enigmatically states,“There’s some suggestion of magical ritual in the play but I can’t say what.” When pushed, he demures, “There’s a magic coconut.”
The play will be presented at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton from November 21-27. “We wanted to do it at the same time as Witchfest as we thought that would be more helpful for us, as if people were travelling from different parts of the UK they are also able to come and see it,” says Withers.
On the closing night, the performance will include a question and answer session with a panel including Philip Hesleton, author of the recently published biography Doreen Valiente: Witch; Ashley Mortimer, a Trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation and the Director of the Centre for Pagan Studies; Julie Payne, a Trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation.
Since word of the play’s production went public, there has been huge international interest. “We’re having people come from around the world,” says Withers, “We had a ticket bought the other day from Australia, so we feel very, very humbled.”
The company has decided to make the play available on commercial release as a DVD. Withers says, “The play will also be professionally filmed. We’ve had a lot of interest from Wiccans in America asking if we’re going to tour it in America, so we’re having it professionally filmed and we’re turning it into a DVD.” The DVD release will be announced on Facebook, and the upcoming play website.
Rumours also abound that the play will tour in England in 2017, so watch that space for updates.
There is no doubt that the play has been close to Withers and Caines’s hearts. Caine says, “Doreen’s writings are some of the most inspiring things and have contributed a lot towards bringing people into the craft, as is the case for me, so it was a labour of love in that respect.”
Withers agrees, “We wanted to get her stories out to as many people as possible. A lot of people know her stories anyway, but I wanted to spread the word of Doreen Valiente really. She was a remarkable woman and I hope as many people as possible get to see it.”
He adds, “All the profits from the play will be going to the Doreen Valiente Foundation. I’m not doing this for my own gain, I just wanted to get the word of Doreen out there and to help the Doreen Valiente Foundation.”
Looking ahead, there are already new projects in the pipeline for Normal People Productions. Withers says, “We’re working with Preston Manor in Brighton, where the Doreen Valiente exhibition is currently, to produce a play about two of their famous ghost stories.” For now though, the spotlight is firmly on Doreen as this iconic figure takes her rightful place centre stage.
Cast and Crew of “Doreen: An English Witch” do the Mannequin Challenge