“The Crucible meets A Few Good Men”. Duncan Ley’s witch-trial play “The Burning” has clear influences but delivers thrilling and engrossing drama.
Francis Schiller (Jack Parker) returns home from uni only to find something rotten in the town of Bamberg. The historical witch trials are reaching a feverish climax and a cloud of paranoia and suspicion is choking freedom of thought. Even worse, Francis’ own father (Jarrad West) is a member of the commission responsible for witch trials but does nothing to stop their injustice. The political becomes personal when Francis’ new wife (Amy Dunham) is accused of witchcraft and he must take on not only the kangaroo court conducting the witch trials but the bigotry and ignorance of the community.
Perhaps inevitably the attacks on the injustice of the witch trials come from the lofty perch of historical perspective. The trials are utterly heinous, applying torture to accused who have no right to defend themselves, a mix that results in a 100% conviction rate. It’s exciting to see desperate underdog Schiller take on the vengeful and bigoted prosecutor Vasolt (writer Duncan Ley) and the case against Vasolt is truly overwhelming: Vasolt is not only a religious zealot, he is vastly illogical and self-contradicting. While the courtroom scenes are amazing theatre, I had trouble believing that a fresh law graduate would be so effective against the seasoned, canny veteran of more than four hundred successful witch prosecutions. When Vasolt flips the tables on Schiller it feels more like the script demands it than an earned victory.
Schiller is essentially a modern liberal with access to history books transported to the witch trials where he rails against ignorance and prejudice without really understanding the world he inhabits. Here the young have a near-monopoly on insight and integrity while the older generation are (almost) all ossified, satisfied and corrupt. There is a fascinating reference in the script to how the crowd cheers whenever a witch burns but this aspect of the story is never developed. Much like Tale of Two Cities we see the impact of historical madness on a few key families but unlike Tale of Two Cities we never see the mob that is not only making these atrocities possible but demanding them. At the moment the case Vasolt builds for himself feels too much like a straw man. The witch trials weren’t merely the plot of scheming zealots abusing their power, they were demanded by a public seeking scapegoats for the ravages of famine and war. Taking on the educated Vasolt is one thing; I would have liked to see Schiller explaining his case to an illiterate peasant farmer.
As we can reliably expect from an Everyman show, the acting is excellent. It’s a truth in acting that “less is more” but sometimes it seems as though Everyman is the only company with the confidence to actually put the idea into practice. There are no attention-grabbing histrionics here and when emotions become heated it is only when it is earned by character and situation. Director Duncan Driver deserves a lot of praise for his restraint. The cast benefits from being filled out with seasoned Canberra theatre veterans. Duncan Ley and Jarrad West lead the older generation, and Jarrad in particular is excellent as the priest who discovers he might love his son more than God. Tony Turner and Geoffrey Borny also nail smaller cameo roles, showing the power of their years of experience.
But the younger actors are the real stars here. Jack Parker is compelling as the young lawyer (and son) who fights for justice even when all hope seems lost while Amy Dunham’s sharp, controlled performance is only too brief. But Will Huang deserves the most praise for going wildly against type and playing Vasolt’s sociopathic and unlikeable son, a creep who loves torture and has fused sex and power. In previous roles Huang has betrayed a deep desire for his character to be liked by the audience and here we see him grow as a performer by fully inhabiting a character who is deeply unsympathetic. All the young actors are believable in their roles however, rising to the (slightly intimidating) challenge of working with such an experienced and distinguished ensemble.
Overall the play is excellently performed and deeply involving. At times there are echoes of moments from other plays (I was repeatedly reminded of A Man For All Seasons) but the mix of elements stands on its own as moving drama bolstered by a high level of craft. Another win for Everyman Theatre.
When: 31 July to 10 August
Time: 8pm; 2pm matinee on Saturdays
Where: Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre
Price: $44 full price; $39 concession and groups (reduced rates for subscribers)