Friday, August 1, 2014
The Burning by Duncan Ley
Reviewed by Frank McKone
The subject of this play about the burning of witches in Bamberg, Germany, in 1628, inevitably brings to mind two other famous plays, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan. Ley has not written a drama with the depth and complexity of human relationships that Miller achieved, and The Burning does not create a central character to match the powerful figure of Shaw’s Joan.
But he successfully adds a dimension which both those other plays touch upon: what is the nature of justice? When the fount of justice is faith in God (or potentially in any unchallengeable belief), and faith cannot be judged by reason, how can any court apply any human law reasonably?
I have not studied the original history to know if Ley’s characters were real, but the importance of the play is that it shows the tragic results of the application of law as if it is based on objective reasoning, but starting from a faith-based assumption.
Madeline Couillart, her husband Francis Schiller, and even his jealous and vicious rival Frederick Vasolt should never have been “burnt in God’s fire” on the grounds that they were witches and heretics. Madeline, played sensitively and beautifully by Amy Dunham, was a prime example of humanity rising above her destructive social setting. Francis, played very effectively by the young actor Jack Parker, represented all those honest and reasonable lawyers who we might see today as working pro bono on human rights cases. While Frederick, played with increasingly ugly and terrifying violence by Will Huang, is in his own way a victim of a society in which the Inquisition is given absolute power.
The worst irony is that Frederick’s father, Ernst Vasolt, played horrifyingly well by Duncan Ley himself, is the very Commissioner of the Inquisition who is the prosecutor who can manipulate the ‘secular’ court because even that court and the prince, under whose rule the court exists, can never be independent of the assumption that God’s law is above all – even though that really means Commissioner Vasolt’s interpretation of crimes against God, like witchcraft and heresy.
The horror lies in the fact that Vasolt is honest, carrying out his belief according to the law. Not only does he succeed in ‘proving’ Madeline and Francis ‘guilty’, but is forced, by his own logic, to condemn his own son. The complexity of how this plays out in court needs to be seen, in the powerful second act of The Burning, to be believed. But, since I have had personal experience, in the days when National Service was compulsory in Australia, of having to conduct my own case in court to ‘prove’ my conscientious objection to being drafted into the army, I understood the position of Francis Schiller, and can believe what happens in Ley’s court scene. I even, after failing in a magistrate’s court, appealed to a higher court before a judge, where I acted as my own lawyer and, rather like Francis, called my own father as a witness, knowing he would be cross-examined by the prosecution lawyers. Fortunately I was not under threat of being burnt at the stake, though I could well have been jailed – but that’s a another story.
I’ve concentrated here on the content of the play, rather than on this production, because I think it is in Ley’s writing that we see the value of theatre arising from the modern day experience which we see paralleled in history.
In fact the production was very effective, including a strident sound track cleverly employing modern, even avant-garde style, in combination with renaissance style music, which for me enhanced the idea of the present being an extension of the past. Although the acting varied somewhat in quality – not surprising when the cast included actors of very different degrees of experience – I found myself imagining the play as it might be done by, say, Sydney Theatre Company.
With a little more work on the first act, and I would think very little more on the very tight drama of the second, I could see The Burning at Wharf 1. It’s certainly well worth seeing at The Q.