Old Vic, London
16th August, 2014, matinee
Yael Farber’s spine-tingling, atmospheric production of Arthur Miller’s parable play is powerfully performed and prompts you to think about modern day witch hunts.
In an interview with Richard Eyre, Arthur Miller stresses that he hopes audiences would reflect how they lived their lives after watching The Crucible. The play was written during the McCarthyism period in the 1950s: a period of madness, he recalls, in which even radical teachers were fired with ‘no trial, nothing. Just accused of something and they’ve gone’. However by setting the play in Salem during the witch trials will mean that the play transcends time so it can resonate with senseless accusations of any community in any time. Watching the Old Vic production reminded me of the recent culture of celebrity witch hunts and radical immigration beliefs. The following lines, for example, ring just as true and relevant now:
Hale: We cannot blink it more. There is a prodigious fear of this court in the country.
Danforth: Then there is a prodigious guilt in the country. Are you afraid to be questioned here?
Hale: I may only fear the Lord sir. But there is fear in the country nevertheless.
‘These are strange times’, says Hale of the denouncing in Salem, where gossip can turn to a charge of witchcraft, for which they could hang if they deny. The fear felt by the community of such accusations (perhaps started through rumour and hatred) reminds us how urgent this play can be.
The in-the-round layout may not always be the best for sight lines, but it is incredibly immersive. Sitting on stage level (in a cosy side-stalls crevice) feels like you’re in the action, which is only heightened by dressing the auditorium’s plushness in drabs of material and an atmospheric haze. Yet it is also voyeuristic at times, especially in the final act when burnt black leaves fall from the ceiling and it’s as if we are peering through the forest trees. It’s extremely effective and chilling. After seeing Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, this production may not have stripped away the detail of the setting, but the effect is just as raw and relevant.
Richard Armitage may be the name on the poster, and he certainly plays John Proctor with verve and earthiness, but this is an ensemble piece, with the entire cast impressing. Armitage is thoughtful and strong as Proctor, as well as being passionately fierce when shouting to keep hold of his name and therefore identity. Act’s three and four are certainly the most charged, and even though there are times when you are aware of actors shouting and spitting at each other, these performances have been finely pitched. Jack Ellis as Judge Danforth powerfully plays his court room scenes excellently to the whole auditorium as if the audience were implicit as witnesses, and Michael Thomas nicely expresses pious anxiety over accusations of witch craft in the first act. Samantha Colley successfully portrays the fraudulent ringleader Abigail Williams with a hint of childish tittle-tattling which then heightens the disbelief that it gets taken for the gospel truth. Plus, Adrian Schiller and Anna Madely provide an air of darkness and mystery as the persistent and then broken Reverend John Hale and the loyal wife Elizabeth Proctor. There is also fine support from Harry Attwell, Natalie Gavin and Sarah Niles but this is a very strong cast that give this production thrilling performances.
The opening image of the cast with chairs that are scattered about the stage before the play begins provides a tableau that prompts thought on a community driven to suspicion and the second-guessing of neighbours’ behaviour. But above all, it is Miller’s potent language that remains the most provoking. There have only been a couple of times when I’ve heard audiences gasp at a play: Howard Davies’ excellent production of All My Sons, and at characters’ double standards in this production.
After last seeing the disappointing Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, it’s great to see the theatre back on form. This is a top production of one of the seminal plays from the 20th century.
The Crucible runs at the Old Vic until 13th September.