“Our ancestors are calling. Let me take you back!” Four women cry, wrapped in long, dark robes with hoods tied at the neck. Together they strike the past against the present day, sparking one word: witch. The term is meant to galvanise, acting as kindling for the injustices that will soon come to pass. In The Burning, the cast move between Saddleworth, Yorkshire and The Scottish Highlands (though some changes in pronunciation can be more suggestive of the United States). Here, coincidence is a curse and superstition can have severe consequences.
The narrative of one Ms Waters – a woman having to clean out her childhood home after the death of her mother – combines with that of her predecessor’s. The Burning is highly physical, with each performer at once propelled and weighed down by the names of those women hanged and burned for alleged magical practises. It is somewhat devilish, the way in which the cast travel across gender, space and time in order to achieve this. The divide between religion and spirituality too is managed deftly, with the passing of The Witchcraft Act creating a real atmosphere of dread.
As if fighting against an invisible current, female characters are caught up by the forces of oppression and erased, turned into nothing but ash. It is their legacy that infects this production. When tensions rise onstage, a vocal-looping station is used to great effect, with the voice of Phoebe Parker cutting though the din like glass. Pre-recorded sounds (also designed by Parker) join the clamour as well, some bending to comedy, others made strange to maintain a sense of the supernatural.
The story is volcanic in parts – anger pulses like magma beneath the surface of the action, before erupting. Written by Zoë Guzy-Sprague (along with the company), historical scenes prove more bewitching, with those set in the present-day lacking pace. The script tends to oscillate between these two extremes, with affairs in the present day not gaining momentum until the very end. Ultimately, this affects the power of the production as a whole, meaning that The Burning isn’t the blaze that it could be.
The Burning is playing at the Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.