Theatre probes witches and women’s rights across centuries

Student actors Dom Devlaminckx and Alannah Dunn (front) in rehearsal for Vinegar Tom, a play by Caryl Churchill. (photo/Sarah Angland)

Non-conformity, the perceived threat of female sexuality, and power struggles through a thrilling mixture of 17th Century politics are themes of a play staged by students of Massey University’s Theatre in Production course this week.

Vinegar Tommerges a mediavel setting with modern songs in a dark allegory into a bleak world where a step away from the status quo could be punished by death, especially if you happen to be a woman. 

Written by acclaimed Obie-Award-Winning British playwright Caryl Churchill in 1976, Vinegar Tom is set against a backdrop of the witchcraft trials in England, says Bachelor of Arts student Sarah Angland, who is acting in the play as well as its publicist. The title refers to a pet cat belonging to one of the female characters, deemed in medieval folklore to be a ‘familiar spirit’ or animal guide that assisted witches in practising magic.

Although there are no witch characters in the provocative work, the play explores; “witch hysteria and female sexuality, examining the idea that the female sexual energy is something to be feared and dismantled; that a woman who is different is dangerous,” she says. “The options are simple. Comply or die. Accuse or face accusation yourself.”

Director Rachel Lenart, a senior tutor in theatre and expressive arts, says she is; “terrified by how resonant and relevant this play from the 1970s about the 17th century is. 

“I see the abortion reforms happening right now in the US and it shows us these aren’t new battles women face and how attempting to assert control over women’s choices here and now, suggest we are not as far from these dark days of history as we’d like to think.”

A scene from Vinegar Tom featuring actors Sera Hartley, Zak Rodgers and Gretchen Nijsse (photo/Sarah Angland).

Power theme at play

The production, in the Sir Geoffrey Peren Auditorium at the Manawatū campus, encompasses live contemporary music, composed and performed by local legend Bek Coogan, known as “New Zealand’s first lady of Rock’ n’ Roll Yodelling and a veteran of counter-culture” (Audio Foundation) – with lyrics by Caryl Churchill. 

“Like all Churchill’s work from this era, ultimately this is a play about power,” says Ms Angland, who is doing a minor in Theatre Studies. “Churchill asks us, ‘Who are the witches now?’ And how will those in power control them/us this time?’” 

The students, from humanities, social sciences and sciences disciplines, have taken on all aspects of the theatre process to create a fully engaged, collaborative vision. Ms Lenart’s previous Churchill works with Massey Students have won the Best Ensemble awards at the Regional Theatre Awards for two consecutive years for Love and Information (2016) and Cloud Nine (2017), with the majority of the company winning for the third consecutive year with Massey’s Firing Line in 2018.

(Warning:Vinegar Tom contains sexually explicit content, strong language and some disturbing scenes and images).

Performances at Sir Geoffrey Peren Auditorium, Massey University, Manawatū campus: 

Wednesday, May 29 - 12.30pm

Wednesday, May 29 - 7pm

Thursday, May 30 - 7pm 

Koha entry for evening performances.


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