By Burning Iron

(Modern Theatre Company)


By Burning Iron is the latest offering from Modern Theatre Company, the team that brought us the controversial Corpus Christi earlier this year. It is Swedish playwright Magnus Dahlstrom’s darkest play, and be warned, it comes with a well-earned MA 15+ rating. The media release says the aim of the show is to make the audience “sickened but fascinated” as we “spend an intimate night in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. Six people discuss the crimes they have committed as they search for guilt and remorse”.

Among the lovelies in the psych ward there’s a kleptomaniac, an arsonist, a wife-beater, a paedophile, and a child murderer. These individuals have apparently been meeting for group therapy twice a week for three years (but evidently to very little effect). The work is essentially a series of monologues explaining the ongoing presence of each individual, and these monologues are tenuously linked by some aggressive dialogue and posturing from the inmates.

The title By Burning Iron is supposed to be deep and meaningful in pure oxygen, iron becomes flammable and if ignited can throw off sparks. Unfortunately there aren’t many sparks in this script only turgid prose, minimal character development and, let’s face it, a questionable premise. This reviewer would dearly love to know about the psychological benefits of locking several criminally insane people with verbal diarrhoeia in a room together. There certainly aren’t many dramatic benefits.

The script’s biggest failing is in its immature attempt to shock the audience with copious and detailed verbal references to child abuse and violence. The director’s notes state that the aim of including these things is to help the audience “see the world with fresher and cleaner eyes” and that “in order to know goodness we need to know evil”. However, any moral messages in the work were not clearly evident on the night I went, and there certainly wasn’t enough real conflict in the text for the audience to take questions away with them.

Director Jimmy Bergkvist valiantly attempts to blow on the cinders by staging this production in an unusual and intimate 32-seat “roundish” format. In line with the “Dogma 95” movement spearheaded by cinema director Lars von Trier, there are no sets aside from what Metro Arts naturally provides, and there is no special lighting. Actors make eye contact with the audience and move among them, which I guess is supposed to be immediate, personal and confrontational.

If there’s going to be a saving grace to this production, it is the acting. All the actors put in heroic efforts to sustain their characters, despite poor scripting and a difficult space. Michael Beets brings an interesting vulnerability to the character of wife-beater Frank: his performance is especially watchable, as is Luke Wright’s interpretation of the confrontational Allan. Beth Lennon gives a natural fluidity to the prickly kleptomaniac Mona, and in the opening minutes the tension between Mona and Arja (the capable Lucy Moxon) is interesting. Relative newcomer Steven Woolley does a good job of a difficult role as the extroverted paedophile Roger, and Crystal Aron’s bashful Ingrid is a good foil for his character.

By Burning Iron will appeal only to the intrepid, the strong-stomached, the moneyed (at $25 per ticket) and those with a big interest in experimental theatre. It is 1 hr 45 minutes long (with no interval).

— Ruth Bridgstock
(Performance seen: Thu 25th September 2003)