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Review: The Burning (Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh)

Incognito debut a new show exploring the persecution of witches in history

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
The Burning
© Mark Senior

It all starts so crackingly well.

The wind howls, blue gels cast the stage in near-cartoonishly ghoulish light, and the cast of four shuffle onto stage, sporting the sort of witches costumes that look like they've been picked up from the local Toys R Us. The infamous Monty Python witch scene is played out over the speakers. The performers lip-sync along, mimicking the over-the-top ridiculousness and farcical misogyny that makes the clip an enduring and relevant delight. You get the tingling sense of a company trying to play with form, teasing out hypocrisy with a fun modern twist. But that's, sadly, as far as it gets.

Incognito Theatre had a solid whirligig of fun in last year's physical theatre-led Tobacco Road, but this year's offering, about witchcraft through the centuries and the nature of gendered persecution, doesn't have the same theatrical verve or gusto.

It's a shame because the ideas behind the piece are so brilliantly rich. Charting true stories of women ostracised and labelled, the best bits of the show come when the team begin to toy with how witchcraft and otherness can be so rapidly used for political, social or financial gain. Like a reimagining of The Crucible, there's ripe opportunity to explore how power is so frequently held in courts governed by men, and how fear can be compartmentalised by the use of a single word – ‘witch'.

But the piece has a harder time transplanting its great ideas to the stage. A lot of this is to do with structure – the show begins by accelerating backwards through 500 years of British history before leapfrogging forwards again through the centuries. We see small, bite-size episodes of explicit and horrifying persecution, as well as an overarching story about a modern-day grieving daughter, clearing out her deceased maybe-witch mother's Yorkshire home. It ends up feeling like an A Level history lesson mixed with an episode of Riverdale.

The cast has to make do with some largely uninspired direction and a clunky script, multi-roling as the various witches and modern-day characters. One neat touch comes when they start playing Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams": the lyrics "Women, they will come and they will go…" sounding like a darkly humorous and horribly saddening reference to five centuries of discrimination.