Hexenhammer, VAULT Festival

by Luisa De la Concha Montes

Die Hexenhammer is a treatise on witchcraft written and published in 1486 by Catholic clergymen Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The key argument of the book is the following: Chaos is female and women corrupt men, therefore women must be destroyed. Using this historical event as the backbone of the play, Suzy Kohane (as Heinrich) and Sidsel Rostrup (as Jacob, Heinrich’s faithful companion) mix comedy and verbatim theatre (taken from incel forums) to create a hilarious, yet extremely poignant play that explores the roots of misogyny.

The script aptly alternates between the present and the Medieval past, drawing correlations that never feel absurd or forced. Through an incredibly convincing alpha male performance, Suzy Kohane deftly brings to life the character of Heinrich Kramer, a man who could well be Jordan B. Peterson, Joe Rogan, or a Christian monk. Jacob’s character, on the other hand, is explored through conversations he has with God, in which he reveals intimate thoughts about his true perception of Heinrich, which is rooted in both admiration and concern. Sidsel Rostrup’s performance completely reverses the one-dimensional concept of the incel, demonstrating that those like Jacob (‘doomed’ for involuntary celibacy), are men with real fears, often feeling disenfranchised.

The contrast between Suzy and Sidsel’s body language are a joy to watch on stage. Jacob is always slightly slouched, whereas Heinrich stands tall and confident. There is a great amount of attention to detail; even their diction is delivered differently, and it dynamically changes throughout the play, including a smooth change from German, to English to American accent from Heinrich. This creates another layer of symbolism that exposes the insecurities in which the sexist views of both characters are rooted.

Thanks to the verbatim nature of the script, the play is infused with Easter eggs such as references to Fight Club, the blue and red pill in The Matrix, the Am I The Asshole reddit forum, and many other internet culture references that have been appropriated by incels. By placing the online discourse offline, Hexenhammer subverts the incel echo-chamber, creating a reading that ridicules the skewed morality upon which they stand. Most of the play exists in a comedic dimension; however, the few moments that are serious, specifically when Heinrich shows his violent self, are really cut-throat and uncomfortable. This is gladly welcomed, as they show the dangerous impact that extreme ideologies may have on others.

Hexenhammer is a true risk-taker. Not only does it take a topic that has been overdone by the media and completely reinvents it, but it also avoids falling into broad generalisations that further fuel ideological divisiveness. Simply put, this play does not feel like it alienates male audiences. The public on the night demonstrate that it does the opposite. Through subtle articulations that pinpoint Jacob’s feelings of inadequacy or Heinrich’s loneliness, both characters are humanised rather than demonised, allowing us to understand the emotional baggage that drew them into this extreme ideology in the first place. Moreover, the fact that these two characters are played by women brings the subversion to another level.

Unlike online discourse, this play is nuanced, showing the horrible consequences of toxic masculinity, whilst exposing how the female ‘witch’ is really just a scapegoat to something much more intricate and complex. Here is where the true witchcraft lies: we are drawn to the story through comedy, unaware that by the end of it, we have swallowed the red pill.

Hexenhammer runs through 11 February.

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