March 17-18, 2023
This is a powerful, intense, work that illustrates what many believe to have been a gross miscarriage of justice.
The story is that of the murder of Percy Thompson in October 1922 by his wife’s lover, Frederick Bywater, and the subsequent trial and execution. Also implicated is Edith, Thompson's wife, who wrote a series of letters to Bywater expressing her love for him and her dissatisfaction with Percy.
The seemingly sordid details ran to how she needed to escape a loveless marriage and, in some flights of fancy, to run away with Bywater, commit joint suicide or kill her husband.
On the strength of these letters, she was deemed to have incited Bywater and shared common cause. She too was executed at the same time as Bywater, 800 yards away in a different prison.
The play, written by Harriet Madeley in collaboration with women from Cheshire's Styal prison, relates this story well, using transcripts from the original trial.
The action has an authenticity that draws the viewer back to the 1920s, even though costumes and accents are contemporary.
The set is simple, and good use is made of the video screen to introduce characters (of which there are many) and relate media reaction. Each of the five actors - Ivy Corbin, Peyvand Sadeghian, Mark Knightley, Harriet Madeley and Rose-Marie Christian - slip seamlessly into different roles such that the story moves quickly and is communicated grippingly.
The subject opens up a range of questions about justice, prejudice and changing societal attitudes.
By today's standards it is unlikely Edith’s case would have gone to court: there is no link between her letters and the incident leading to Percy’s death; she also appeared to have no knowledge of Bywater’s intention to assault or kill him.
Only half of the letters were submitted in evidence and Edith seemed oblivious to the content of many of them. It is debatable whether the letters were admissible evidence at all, as there was no reference to any planning or forethought to assault Percy on that October night.
So what that century-old trial seems to have been is the trial of apparently unorthodox sexual behaviour; the utter horror of the judge and jury on hearing that a woman could be guilty of adultery and encourage a lover outside of marriage. Edith wasn't an unwitting victim but a passionate, complicit partner who expressed a desire to throw over her staid husband for someone more to her liking.
In the 1920s, most people would expect a woman like Edith to remain quiet and look after a husband, no matter how he treated her. How times have changed.
Will this play lead to Edith being exonerated? One wonders. There is a continuing campaign to clear her name, but it lacks a groundswell of opinion. More importantly perhaps, the play shows well that the law should be blind to matters of race, sexuality and gender in determining guilt. We still haven't got it right 100 years later: too many cases display mysoginy and bias against woman and other defendants.
Crowded Room's play puts century-old bias into a modern context that suggests the need for vigilance in justice remains vital. It's a powerful piece, and not just for the story of injustice it relates.
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