You can’t fight faith with logic and win, because faith will never listen. So says Bishop Philipp Schiller in Duncan Ley’s 2001 play The Burning. But logic is not entirely powerless, as the play proves. Although ostensibly set in a witch trial in 1628, these are modern characters engaged in timeless predicaments, where faith has been moulded by self-interest to allow extreme cruelty and injustice. There are too many modern parallels to list here, with echoes in almost every major political and international story today.
This production was riveting, thanks to Driver’s exquisite direction and superb performances by Canberra acting royalty (including ANU Drama Department founder Geoffrey Borny, acclaimed actor and ex-ANU Drama head Tony Turner, and author Ley himself) and some vibrant young talent (Jack Parker, Will Huang and Amy Dunham). Will Huang chills to the bone as Frederick Vasolt, describing with obvious relish the tortures he is about to inflict. On hearing his proposed fate, the anguish of Johannes Junius (Borny) is palpable, almost without his speaking. Jarrad West as Bishop Philipp Schiller perfectly captured the pain of a man whose faith, emotions and logical faculties are in mutually exclusive conflict.
But most psychologically interesting and disturbing was Ley’s Ernst Vasolt. Ley plays this psychopathic monster to perfection. He toys with the emotions of his quarries to goad them into incriminating themselves, while accusing them of witchcraft overtly for his own monetary gain, justifying his actions under the guise of holy righteousness. But in spite of appearing wholly driven by self-interest, when offered the chance to revoke his world view to save something close to him, he chooses his faith. It's a fascinating contradiction.
Director Driver brings out some surprising moments of pitch-black irony and humour within the horror. When the climax arrived, it was so emotionally and intellectually satisfying that the audience burst into spontaneous applause. I highly recommend this excellent theatre, although strong torture themes mean it is not for children under 16.
Images: Jarrad West, Peter Holland, Duncan Ley and Jack Parker & Will Huang tells Geoffrey Borny of his planned torture in The Burning.