Abigail: Q&A with Laura Turner & Stephen Gillard

Inspired by the Salem Witch Trials, Abigail is a new play that examines the female experience – both then and now – through the story of true-life character Abigail Williams. Coming to The Space next month but also available to watch online, the play is written by Laura Turner, Artistic Director of Fury Theatre, and Stephen Gillard, who also directs. Theatre Things spoke to Laura and Stephen about what inspired them to tell Abigail’s story, the show’s journey so far, and their hopes for its future.

Can you briefly summarise what the show’s about?   

Stephen: Abigail picks up the journey of Abigail Williams after the events of the Salem Witch Trials. We follow her as she arrives in Boston Massachusetts and discovers a world beyond the confines of Salem. However this is a dark, dangerous world, full of people who use those they can and destroy those they can’t. The play looks at the effects an event like Salem would have on a young, abused, fragile psyche. Examining themes such as male and white privilege, coercive control, the bisexual female experience and how the legal system fails women past and present.

How did you first learn about Abigail Williams, and why was hers a story you wanted to tell? 

Laura: The history books were our first introduction to Abigail Williams and immediately it struck us as a fascinating unheard story of the past – of a time of immense female suffering and prejudice in the toxic storm of the seventeenth century’s witch hunts – so it made immediate sense for us to connect with her as a protagonist for this story. The fact that there are only pockets of information about her as a real person meant fertile ground for us as creatives to put our own spin on the history and story of Salem, and most importantly with this play, the world beyond Salem. We want to explore the consequences of being part of something like those witch trials – the impact it might have had on the psyche of a young woman who lacked many of the elements of agency that we have in the modern world. Abigail had been parachuted into a perilous position of power when she accused her fellow women of witchcraft, but that was a position that disappeared as suddenly as it came to her when her purpose to the white patriarchal leaders of her isolated community was done and the trials were over. We want to ask, where does that leave a vulnerable young girl on the brink of womanhood? It’s a parallel to any traumatic experience that happens in our formative years.

Does writing a show about a real person feel like more of a responsibility? How did you go about researching and telling the story? 

Stephen: So little is known about Abigail Williams after the events of Salem and yet she remains an enduring figure confined within her own infamy. We felt this was indicative of a broader female experience throughout history and, indeed, into the present day. Women are often thrust into the public consciousness with an impending sense of betrayal. We almost wait for that “gotcha” moment and cast them aside once the headlines run their course. So, while Abigail was indeed a real person, we felt she was a great example of how many many women have been treated throughout history.

Laura: What’s also fascinating about Abigail Williams as a character is the fact that after the Salem Witch Trials she does crop up once more, in an apocryphal story that she ended up in Boston Massachusetts as a prostitute, where she died in prison as a teenager. This really inspired something important in the story of Abigail – what happens to take a young woman from the pedestal she’s on in Salem, to the point of no return in the city? Those gaps in history are where we can explore, ask questions, and look to start conversations and parallels with today.

Why should we come and see the show?

Stephen: This is the beginning of Abigail’s journey. We are looking to build upon each performance and hone the story. We want you, the audience, to be involved in that process. If you love Abigail, that’s amazing, but we will always be completely open to constructive feedback. This is a chance to see a play take shape and, we believe, look at a well known story from a completely different angle. We also really hope that you look at Abigail with the question in your minds; how far have we actually come?

We want this first outing for the play to be a chance to start conversations, both in terms of the developmental future of the piece but also around the themes and content of the piece. In many aspects, Abigail isn’t an easy watch – we don’t want to shy away from the violence and toxicity that women encountered then (and now, in certain situations) – but that’s an intentional choice to be brave in our storytelling and be as authentic as we can to the real experiences of so many women (and men) who might have experienced domestic abuse, coercive control, racism and bigotry. It would be disrespectful of us as storytellers to sugar-coat that, so we hope that debate and conversation will be instigated by these performances. 

Can you tell us a bit about Fury Theatre – how did the company get started and what’s your mission? 

Laura: Fury Theatre was established at the start of 2020 and came out of my body of work that I’d been creating across the previous years of my career. I am a playwright, screenwriter and actor, and it had always been instinctive to me that female stories were at the heart of my creative process, because those were naturally the perspectives, stories and voices that I connected with and gravitated towards. But as I became more confident in myself and what I was passionate about, I wanted to start making my own work as well as working on commissions with other companies. Fury was born out of that desire to take a direct hand in theatre making in all its areas, from artistic to production, and then to take ownership of the themes and questions that motivate and compel me. The things that make us angry are often a good source of creative inspiration and I began to think about how difficult anger can be to express, especially and still today, for women. It’s hard to acknowledge and embrace our fury, but it’s dangerous to repress so we need to find ways. Fury Theatre speaks to that impulse, to express ourselves, and to tell our stories with heart and fire. I hope the company will continue to grow and keep using emotionally-driven narratives to tell stories with a social conscience and something “bigger” to say.

What would you like audiences to take away from seeing Abigail? 

Stephen: Have we really come as far as we think we have? History lets us put distance between ourselves and the events we’re being asked to witness. If you watch Abigail and see the events of the play, we want you to ask if there are any similarities to things happening around the world and in our own back yard that mirror what you’re seeing? Have women gained complete agency and autonomy of their lives, their bodies and their futures now that the witch trials are over? Does the justice system offer a level playing field? In short, we just want people to take away questions and see if they can’t come up with some answers. Also, we’d really like you to actually enjoy the piece, even if we do sound super serious about everything.

Finally, where and when can we watch it?

Laura: You can catch Abigail at The Space, Isle of Dogs from 3rd to 7th May at 8pm, with an additional Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. If you’re not in London, you can also watch the livestream on 5th May, which will also be available on demand for two weeks afterwards.

You can book tickets to see Abigail at https://space.org.uk/event/abigail/

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