The Burning

 The BurningBy Duncan Ley. Everyman Theatre. The Q Theatre. 31 July 2014

Move over John Grisham, there’s a new courtroom drama in town and it’s come to retrospectively kick the arse of religious dogma and corruption. Written by Duncan Ley, ‘The Burning’ is set during the German witch trials of the 1600s, when hysteria was high and reason at an all time low.

Francis Schiller (Jack Parker) is a carefree budding lawyer and son of Catholic Church Commissioner, Phillip (Jarrad West), who makes the mistake of marrying the woman (Madeline Couillart played by Amy Dunham) of his best friend Frederick’s (Will Huang) dreams.

Frederick Vasolt also happens to be the son of a Church Commissioner named Ernst (Duncan Ley), and is assigned as the head torturer of suspected witches; a position which he exploits to take his revenge on Francis and Madeline by accusing them of witchcraft.

Being a lawyer, Francis represents himself at his unsurprisingly farcical trial with the support of his father and friend Benedict (Bradley McDowell), but with a few tricks up his sleeve that catch the Vasolt’s, as the prosecution, by surprise.

Although the gravitas-soaked dialogue of ‘The Burning’ started off a little pompous and convoluted, you could certainly not criticise Ley for a lack of historical research and detail.  In any case it was worth the wait as the final scenes elicited a response from the audience that I’ve never seen at the theatre before.

As the gripping intellectual battle ensued in the courtroom, the arguments against Ernst and the behaviour of the church was so lucidly reasonable and compelling that the audience (or makeshift jury it would seem) at one point actually broke into applause for Francis – at which point I half expected to see rotten tomatoes hurled at the Vasolts. However, this was no ‘smart goodies versus dumb baddies’ scenario, with Ernst an equally cunning fox who did his fair share of outmanoeuvring to keep people on the edge of their seats.

And while the script was exploding into the brilliance you would expect from a playwright with such an articulate way with words and depth of thought, each performer really dug deep to do it justice.  The passion of the leads for the project was especially stirring and, despite the intellectual rigour, it was an intensely visceral experience to behold.

The utilitarian set was as appropriately desolate and as bleak as the actual events occurring at the time, with no real need for frills given the stand-alone power of the storyline and performances.

Given the latest atrocities occurring in the name of religion, that are topping news headlines at present, this run of ‘The Burning’ is a very timely reminder that we humans still have a long way to go in terms of our behaviour towards our fellow man. This production makes a very good case for heeding the lessons from our past and for refraining from twisting doctrine that is past its use-by date to justify inhumanity.

Deborah Hawke

When: 31 Jul to 10 Aug
Where: The Q Theatre