Bamberg, Germany in 1628 was a dangerous place, even for the powerful. It was a centre of the witch-hunts that claimed many lives in Europe, and it is in this tense environment that the play The Burning takes place.
The Burning was a seminal work for its author, Canberra actor, director and playwright Duncan Ley when it premiered in 2001, directed by Stephen Pike.
"It launched my theatrical career," Ley says. Already a well-established actor in Canberra, he went on to write other plays that have been produced in Australia and overseas, direct productions and co-found the Everyman Theatre, which is producing a revival of The Burning, directed by Duncan Driver.
Ley says The Burning came about after he came across a copy of The Encyclopaedia of Demonology and Witchcraft in a second-hand bookshop.
"It's largely an academic text about the historical phenomenon of witchcraft, not the modern iterations like Wicca," he says. It opened his eyes to what happened in Europe - especially Germany - in the 17th century. While many of the characters in his play are historical, he makes no claims for it being a documentary work.
"It's a work of fiction based on their real lives and the events which happened to them."
At its heart, Driver says, The Burning is "really a play about fathers and sons and the ways they relate to each other."
In The Burning, Bishop Phillip Schiller (Jarrad West) is the commissioner of Hallstadt in charge of the witch trials in his area. Dr Ernst Vasolt (Ley), a lawyer and the commissioner of Bamberg, is similarly engaged. The bishop's son, Francis (Jack Parker) is a lawyer who has a combative relationship with his father.
"They have very, very different ideas about ethics and morality especially in regard to the nature of God and the ethics of the witchhunts," Driver says.
Francis, a recent university graduate, talks about Enlightenment principles - to him, science, technology and philosophy are what God is. Vasolt's son Frederick (Will Huang) works for his father as a torturer.
"Their relationship is in some ways much easier and freer - son and father have ideas much more sympathetic to each other. Both are quite conservative and work for the commission in charge of investigating and trying witchcraft," Driver says.
After Francis returns from his legal studies he falls in love with and marries Madeline (Amy Dunham), with whom Frederick had previously been in a relationship. The friendship of the two young men is destroyed because of this and the jealous Frederick accuses Francis of witchcraft. Family ties and religious and ethical principles are tested as Francis goes on trial for his life.
Ley says, "Arthur Miller's The Crucible comes up as a theatrical comparison, but whereas The Crucible centres on the interaction between the powerful and the powerless emblematic of the American witch craze, my play essays the struggle between powerful factions of the day."
The 2001 production received critical praise and won Canberra Area Theatre Awards for its set and for Best Play and Best Original Work.
He says while the play remains essentially what it was, as an older and more experienced writer he made a few cuts and changes.
"This one I think has a bit more concentration on the relationships between the fathers and the sons ... In the first production we concentrated more on the dramatic narrative.
"There's a lot less uncertainty about the play now, not having to workshop it."
Now the play is more established and he knows what works, there's room for more exploration and nuance, Ley feels, and he can take off his writer's hat and focus on his character during rehearsals.
Driver says, "We're trying to muddy the waters - who's necessarily right, who's necessarily wrong."
While some of the beliefs of the characters may come off as superstition to modern eyes, Driver says, and there are mixed motives at play, they do genuinely believe in the existence of witchcraft.
Driver says the play was originally in three acts but has now been streamlined into two, which he thinks works better.
" The core of the play is still very much there. It's a better play: some of the bombastic elements of the original have been shaved away and it's a little closer to realism."
In the premiere, Ley and Driver played Francis and Frederick but now Ley has moved on to one of the fathers. The sons, as well as the other younger roles, are played by the next generation of performers - some of whom were in the combined Grammar Schools' production of The Burning last year, directed by Pike, which also won several CAT Awards.
The Burning has also been produced in Sydney and while Ley has gone on to write other plays - In Cold Light also won a CAT Award as Best Original Work and is being adapted into a feature film - his first produced play still holds a special place for him. He's pleased to see it being revived, becoming part of the local repertory.
The Burning is on at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre from July 31 to August 10. Tickets $49/$44, all matinees $41 Bookings: theq.net.au
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