“Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so that heaven’s vault should crack.” This Yaël Farber production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is worthy of comparison with Shakespeare’s King Lear in the sheer weight of its tragedy.
The whole theatre draped in greying cloth (is that a wine or a blood stain in front of my seat?). The characters moving rhythmically, trance-like, with Tituba, the only black member of the cast, limping or dancing heavily towards the centre of the stage with a bowl in her upturned hands.
The beginning of The Crucible is certainly dramatic. And the drama increases, inexorably, even remorselessly, towards the play’s conclusion. Cycle upon cycle of accusations build up the horror and madness of the infamous Salem witch trials. Yet there are plenty of plot and character twists within this ratcheting of tension. And some humour too – a welcome release from the pent up frustration and anguish.
Richard Armitage performs admirably as the play’s tragic hero. Though perhaps starting a little too emphatically, his character development is flawless and invests the audience utterly in his story. With his wife, played by Anna Madeley, the pair create a moving duo against the mania of the crowd and the authorities.
The girls are terrifyingly, highly realistically mad, yet there is a chillingly cold calculation behind the madness in the form of Abigail, played by Samantha Colley. The whole cast is entirely believable and work fantastically together. While the play itself can seem a little one-sided, this production admirably captures the quandary of those in charge of the Church trials and even the girls themselves as they find themselves too ensnared in the hysteria of their creation to go back. First class acting and direction give depth to all characters – deeper even than comfortable – which is exactly the hallmark of a great tragedy.
Topical? Though based on the historical Salem Witch Trials, Miller’s play was first performed in the context of ‘witch hunts’ for Communists in 1950s America. As such, it is difficult not to try to draw parallels with current events. Sex abuse scandals, both in the celebrity world and in the Church? Terrorism, spying and the privacy debate? Fundamentalist religion? It is a matter perhaps left to the judgement of the individual, but the resonances are there for the finding.
Lear’s challenge is an apt metaphor for this play. The feelings of frustration and helplessness, the overwhelming desire to speak out trumped by fear of becoming the new pariah – these are the symptoms of a society seeking an ‘other’ in each individual’s desperate attempt to protect themselves.
You will never see this play better performed nor better produced. Spellbinding.
As the lights go down on the Old Vic, dark figures begin to float across the stage in a sea of smoke, setting up chairs as if we are witnessing the silent proceedings of some ghostly magistrates’ court. This eerily choreographed opening promises something special, and Yaël Farber’s new production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible does not disappoint.
In his classic 1953 play, Arthur Miller uses the events of the Salem witch trials to critique McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’ of 1950s America, exploring our susceptibility to hysteria and reckless scapegoating. Under Farber’s direction, these themes are left to speak for themselves, while he specifically highlights the religious aspect of the play. Through his use of silent, ritualised scenes in the play’s key moments, as well as the strangely menacing music of Richard Hammarton, he directs its focus towards the dangers of the occult and the irrationality of religion, creating resonances with modern religious fundamentalism.
We also get a very vivid impression of how the supposed victims of witchcraft and the devil’s work, mostly Abigail Williams (a thrillingly evil and manipulative Samantha Colley) and her accomplices, take on a demonic aspect themselves – in the courtroom scene where we finally see their supposed possession at work, glaring red lighting lays bare this ironic reversal.
The staging is ingenious – encircled by spectators, the stage could not help but recall the crucible of the title, an arena in which we watched the petty feuds of these Salemites unfold in a fog of untruths (suggested by intermittent puffs of smoke). The smoky lighting and dancing scenes seem to shed a further pall of unreality over the horrific narrative that plays out on stage.
Casting is fantastic all round, ranging from the stirring, tortured performance of Richard Armitage (Spooks, The Hobbit) as the voice of reason, John Proctor, to Adrian Schiller’s Doctor John Hale, suddenly and drastically ravaged by regret, to Christopher Godwin’s nuanced performance as Judge Hathorne, seeming to glimpse the truth behind all the mania, just for an instant, and yet banish it from his mind.
The emotional experience of the play can perhaps be best summed up by the case of Giles Corey. This jovial old man (a very lovable William Gaunt) laments early on in the play that his wife is “reading books”, and wants to know why. At the time we laugh at this silly old man and his bumbling musings, but later in the play, this seems to have become a pretext for his wife’s prosecution for witchcraft (a subtle but very moving McCarthy-esque tinge). Thus the play’s only note of comedy, besides the brilliant gallows-humour of old midwife Rebecca Nurse (“they haven’t even given me breakfast!”), ultimately dissolves into one of its most tragic moments.
The Crucible runs at the Old Vic Theatre in London until 13 September