Æ News – Burke & Hare murders re-examined in new play

Oct 21 2010 | By More

Siege Perilous and West Port Productions team up to stage Caroline Dunford’s Burke

Andrew Hainey plays William Burke. Photo Gary Daniell Photography

By Thom Dibdin

Edinburgh theatre companies Siege Perilous and West Port Productions are teaming up to stage Burke, a new play based on the exploits of serial murderers Burke and Hare, at the GRV in November.

The script, by Edinburgh writer Caroline Dunford, uses accounts from William Burke’s two-day trial in 1828, during which William Hare gave evidence against him in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Burke is a poignant haunting psychological drama which delves into the mind of notorious serial killer William Burke as he awaits his execution,” according to Siege Perilous producer Tina Finch. “This telling of the story will challenge the common perception about who the main protagonist was in the deadly partnership between William Burke and William Hare.”

The two were responsible for a total of 16 murders at Hare’s West Port lodging house, and they sold the bodies of their victims to Dr Robert Knox, an anatomist at the Edinburgh medical school. They sold Knox a total of 17 cadavers, the first being a pensioner who died from natural causes owing Hare £4 rent. Having received £7 10/- for the body, their killing spree lasted a year although Burke and Hare never resorted to robbing graves, just people of their lives.

Dunford’s play is not a simple retelling of the 16 murders. It is set in the death-cell of cold, dank Calton Jail, days before Burke’s execution in front of 25,000 people on Edinburgh’s High Street. The murderer, played by Andrew Hainey who played Mordred in Siege Perilous’ recent production of Arthur at Craigcrook Castle, languishes with only his jailer Captain Rose for company.

Mark Kydd plays the honourable Captain Rose who, wanting to see the good in all men, strives to discover why these two men committed such atrocities. This was a time when attention was focused on the splendour of Edinburgh’s emerging New Town – earning the city the name ‘the Athens of the North’ – while those living in the poorer Old Town were left to fend for themselves.

William Hare is played by Greg Firth. Having escaped prosecution, Hare was released from Calton Jail in February 1829, after Burke’s hanging on 28 January. Their murder spree ultimately led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing anatomists legal recourse to other bodies than those of criminals who had suffered corporal punishment.

Dunford’s previous play Suspicious Minds was performed by Siege Perilous in May. She has already used her background in psychology to write crime novel A Death in the Family. A member of the Crime Writers’ Association, it was her keen interest in the criminal mind which led Stuart Nicoll and John Baxter of West Port Productions, who operate the Burke and Hare Murder Tour, to commission her to write this new play.

West Port then approached Siege Perilous because of its focus on new writing and emerging talent to discuss staging the play. Stuart Nicoll is directing Burke, Siege Perilous is producing, and the show will also feature original music by Edinburgh musician Fiona Rutherford.

Burke plays the GRV, 37 Guthrie Street, 16-20 November. Tickets priced £8 (£6 concessions) are available online at www.wegottickets.com/f/2076, by phone on 0131-554 3005 and on the door.

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