Arthur Miller’s powerful play equating the hysteria of the Salem witch trials with the investigations of the McCarthy committee against Communist influences within Hollywood. Even with this in mind the unfolding plot seems eerily relevant today, in which any questioning of authority might be seen as subversive, and where the question can still be asked “is the accuser always holy?”
The Old Vic auditorium has been adapted to accommodate a production ‘in the round’, not entirely successfully – from the original old stalls seating, where I was, you look forward to the old proscenium arch and boxes which look a little forlorn now, especially as they have been draped in what look like stained dustsheets. Ahead there is temporary stalls seating, some so close to the actors they almost become part of the action, and two tiers of seating above. These seats must cost less than the ones on the other side of the stage as they are often looking at the backs of actors rather than seeing a true sense of what’s going on.
Richard Armitage has been cast in the leading role of John Proctor, a good Christian man with a pious wife (Anna Madeley) and three young boys who we never see. Their servant Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) is close to a simpleton, easily led and susceptible to suggestion from her close friend Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley), who had previously served the Proctors and been dismissed after an illicit affair with the master of the house. As Proctor will say towards the end of the play, Abigail is ‘no child’, and it is her cunning and calculation that led to the horrendous destruction of more than twenty good souls of her village.
This is an era where witchcraft is still seriously considered as a counter to pious religious observance, where girls are seen to fly, fit and faint to order, and where outside figures of authority (the minister, Mr Hale (Adrian Schiller, who is excellent), and the judge, Danforth (Jack Ellis)) are initially welcomed but then bring fear and terror with them. There’s something about watching crowd mentality and hysteria which is underlined in this production from the opening scenes, where neighbours look at each other with suspicion and old questions about the land and the law rear their heads.
‘The Crucible’ is an intense play which is powerfully performed here, and becomes exceptionally moving towards the end. Some small, but beautiful pieces of casting bring veterans William Gaunt (as Giles) and Ann Firbank (as Rebecca Nurse) to the stage, while newcomer Colley is the epitome of jealous evil as Abigail, with her darting eyes and spittles of spite coming through in her first interaction alone with her former lover. She is a dangerous spirit who leads the other children in a spiral of fantasy which leads their friends to madness or the gallows.
Some of the playing is a little too broad for the space (Michael Thomas as Rev Parris, Harry Attwell as Putnam) but these are playing the accusers, and it is perhaps necessary to see them caught up in their own vengeance and wild excitement as they abuse power in the name of piety.
The only downside to this production if I had to pick one was the small minority in the audience who felt the need to laugh at the scenes in the court, which have to be played at a heightened level to be effective. The in the round staging does work well in these scenes – I spied a woman in the temporary stalls with her hand to her mouth looking horrified at Armitage’s ‘because it is my name’ speech and this did add something to an already unbearable experience. You watch these characters unravel before your eyes and you are helpless to help them or look away.
See this for Armitage’s extraordinary performance – he’s rarely off-stage for the mammoth three hour running time (plus interval) and although his vocal power might be a little diminished by the end, it doesn’t matter. His Proctor will surely be classed as one of the great stage performances in the future.