Mark Ludmon reviews Jen McGregor’s new play, Heaven Burns, at Assembly Roxy at Edinburgh Fringe
Jen McGregor throws a light on a dark period of Scottish history in the 1660s when a wave of witch hysteria swept the country. In her new play Heaven Burns, she re-imagines the story of Christian Caddell, a woman who posed as a man, John Dickson, to become a “witch pricker” – zealots who toured the country using a needle to find the devil’s mark hidden on someone’s body to identify whether they were a witch.
In McGregor’s version of the story, Christian is driven by her religious fervour and genuine belief in her witch-finding abilities, although nobody knows her actual motivation – historians have noted that the job was a popular one as it paid a daily wage plus a large lump sum for every witch found. In her male garb, Christian attracts the sexual advances of her servant, Isobel, who is drawn into her conspiracy. It later emerges that this is in fact Isobel Gowdie whose incredibly detailed confessions of witchcraft are among the most notorious in history.
Promising an exploration of gender politics, the play does little more than present a religious fundamentalist using subterfuge to pursue what she sees as her vocation in a strictly male-only profession. Although men were accused of witchcraft, the play does touch on the 17th-century patriarchal society’s views that it was women who were most susceptible to Satan due to their weaker nature.
The show’s intriguing premise, which prompted us to include it in our preview of theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, is developed no further than a simple narrative. Despite the three-strong cast Susanna Mulvihill, Marion Geoffray and Andrew Findlater, it lacks tension even as the deception comes under threat, and we are not led to care what happens to either of the women. Although the play seeks to explain Christian’s motivation, she is never anything more than a villain, excited by torture and causing pain in her mission to fight the devil. There is potential in exploring gender and the evils of witch-hunting through the fascinating story of Christian Caddell but Heaven Burns sadly does not live up to this promise except to prove that women have just as much right to be monsters as men.
Running to 27 August 2018