Duncan Ley is the finest working playwright in Canberra. Fullstop. I'm sorry if that insults others, but ... the crown is his. Come back again when you've written as many heartfelt, strong, dynamic plays as his and we'll talk again.
"The Burning" is his first play that got a wide audience, a tale of 17th century German witchtrials with a strong fathers-and-sons thematic underneath, and ... no, it's not his best play - it does slightly smack of melodrama (and dressing one set of father-and-sons all in black with a lot of leather kinda empahsises the point), plus the courtroom events in act two draw strongly on other courtroom dramas more than anything that would ever happen in an actual courtroom - but it shows a strong capable writing mind producing strong, propulsive drama. It's engaging from the gentle, witty beginning to the shockingly twisted end, and, for a story that is strongly dependent on torture and violence, all the violence is kept carefully offstage, described rather than presented, but no less chilling in its effect (as always, it ends up being more-so as there's nothing creepier than the audience's imagination).
In the context of his later play's, it's intriguing how his common themes of power, guilt and the place of his character's in their wider society are all here - just that his most recent works have moved away from the period settings of plays like "The Burning" and "When in Rome" into modernity of "Home at the End" and "The Ides of March". If I prefer the more recent works it may be because the historicism plays a little as a crutch - a way of borrowing authority rather than earning it.
It seems somewhat unfair that fate, as well as making Duncan Ley the finest working playwright in Canberra, should also make him an astoundingly good actor. In the role of Ernst Vasolt he refuses ever to fall into an easy pattern, with every line of dialogue, and every movement drawing the audience in. He can gently throw away lines casually, only to turn and smash the next phrase into the audience. It's impossible to take your eyes from him when he comes to play.
Astonishingly, Jack Parker, who plays Frances Schiller, is still in high school. Astonishingly because he more than stands his own with actors of senior authority, presenting a compassionate, emotive, deep, performance - it's a major mainstage debut and I doff my hat.
Amy Dunham has that strange gift of being instantly loveable as soon as she appears on stage.In her opening bickering with Parker, she's fast and clever, and the two of them have great chemistry together with that feel of a real, strong, binding relationship. Her final exit from the play (late in act one) also sees her launch herself off the stage in a way that seems astonishingly reckless (but I have no doubt is carefully choreographed for her own safety) - she amazes me.
In a major break from his usual typecasting as a beamingly charming fella, Will Huang is pure concentrated twisted rage as Frederick Vasolt - he gets astonishing effects just from holding a knife, or chewing an apple off a crowbar. He is, in the best way possible, thoroughly disturbing.
Jarrad West ... isn't as strong as he might be as Phillip Schiller. There are moments when his strength comes through - the declaration "I love my son more than I love my god", or his involvement in the trial scene - but there are other moments when it doesn't seem he's truly feeling the complex emotions that lie within Schiller - his characterisation occasionally seems to come from the script rather than from the heart. West is one hell of an actor, and this may be an awkward mix of performer and role, but it's the one piece that didn't really land with me.
Geoffrey Borny shows strength and will as the unfortunate Johannes Junius. Tony Turner projects easy authority but is unfortunately not always on top of his lines. And Peter Holland celebrates a victory lap of a great year for drunk acting (after his sublime Aguecheek) in the early scenes before becoming an easily bamboozled magistrate in the later scenes.
Duncan Driver's directing keeps the show pacey, strongly presentational, and builds the tension nicely. Tim Hansen's music gives the play a strong underbeat and maintains that tension and energy without being intrusive into the action.
In short, this is fine work performed excellently by a company on the top of their game. Well worth the trek out to Queanbeyan.