Guest Post: Salem in the Seventeenth Century. Not as far removed as we might think…

Artistic Director of Fury Theatre Laura Turner discusses the parallels between 17th Century Salem and the world we live in today as the company’s new show Abigail heads to The Space from the 3rd to the 7th May.

It’s easy to look back on the past and think about how far we’ve come. How things have changed for the better. And in a lot of ways, that is of course absolutely true. We live longer,
we have more things, we travel more freely so, on the surface, at least, life looks a lot better than it was for people in the many centuries that went before us. And don’t get me wrong – in
so many ways, it is. We have better health care systems, cleaner water, safer living conditions, more policing, a fairer justice system…but do we? When we look deeper – when
we really interrogate something like, for example, our justice system, how far have we come from those times we relegate to the dark depths of the past?

This was one of the many ideas that led to the creation of Fury Theatre’s new show, ABIGAIL, which plays at The Space on Isle of Dogs from 3rd to 7th May. As a writer, I’ve always felt strongly that there are so many clear and visceral links between the present and the past. We sometimes have this idea that people “then” were psychologically very different to us, but I don’t think that’s true. We’re all human beings, and yes the contexts that surround us might change – we might have better formal education and social opportunity, for example – but emotions don’t really change that much. We all experience love, jealously, hate, fear, sadness, grief, hope, joy, pleasure. We express them in similar ways too – justlook at the fact that people have always told stories about their experiences, from the very start of human development. It’s what we do, so we can’t be that different.

ABIGAIL is set in the aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials and could in some ways be described as a feminst sequel to those events. It is imagined history, taking the real life person of Abigail Williams and following what could have happened to her after the intense months of the witch trials. Abigail was a young girl at the centre of that storm of accusation and power play, so we want to ask – what effect might that have had on her psyche? On the way she viewed the world, herself and other people? Gender politics inevitably come into this in a big way. Abigail lived in a world that was ruled by men. Salem in 1692 was an absolute patriarchy, yet when she accused other women of being witches (as she famously did), she gained a type of power. But only for as long as it was useful. Then she was dropped. By the men in charge, by the courts, and indeed by the history books. The only remain of her after the witch trials is an apocryphal story that she fled Salem, stealing money from her rich uncle to start a new life in Boston – where she died in prison as a prostitute aged 18. What happened to her in those intervening years to mark such a stark change?

The play was co-written by myself and the director, Stephen Gillard, which we felt was an important balance to find in terms of the gendered voices of the play. ABIGAIL is absolutely
about the female experience, and Fury Theatre my company is focused on female stories told with fire. Yet the male perspective is important. We deal with some very toxic male characters in the piece, as well as versions of masculinity that are more complex and layered. For me as a female creative and Artistic Director of a company telling stories about women, I think it’s vital that we capture both perspectives and show all sides of all characters. Our central character Abigail for example is by no means perfect. In fact, the dramatic core of the play is about how she has to confront some of the “bad” choices and mistakes she has made in her life and try to move past them. What’s important for me with any story is that collaborative element, that everyone is able to engage with a story. Telling stories about women exclusively to women isn’t (to my mind) as helpful or insightful as telling a story that draws everyone, almost regardless of gender, into the creative process and then the audience’s experience. I want the message of ABIGAIL to find as many people as possible, and have an impact on them.

ABIGAIL hopefully asks some big questions about the female experience, toxic masculinity and the inadequacies of the justice system, especially in its treatment of women. These
aren’t just questions we’re posing about the past – about America in the seventeenth century but about today. How much has changed? Like we say, we hope that it’s a lot, but when we
look closer, we see powerful women vilified all the time. Raised up by the media, only to be condemned as soon as they do something that doesn’t quite fit with the narrative that’s been decided for them. Women still fall into two categories in our world today – good or bad. The angel or the devil. The loyal, loving wife, or the over-sexualised adulteress. We all know that women – that people – are far more complex than any binary definition that might be forced on them. ABIGAIL looks to start the conversation and reflection on these issues and problems we still face and help us as audiences and creatives to ask ourselves: what now?

By Laura Turner, co-writer of ABIGAIL and Artistic Director of Fury Theatre.

ABIGAIL plays at The Space, Isle of Dogs from Tuesday 3rd May – Saturday 7th May with performances at 8pm and a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. A livestream on Thursday 5th May at 8pm will also be available to watch on demand for two weeks after. Tickets and more information on all performances can be found here:

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