This is my month of standing ovations, first Skylight and now Yaël Farber’s Crucible. As anyone who attends the theatre in London will know (as oppose to our US cousins who are more effusive in their theatre appreciation), standing ovations are as rare as hen’s teeth in these parts of the world. We reserve those for the truly worthy productions. And, this Crucible is a truly worthy recipient.
Since it’s first production in 1953, The Crucible has continued to resonate with relevance for so many people across the world. As I watched this spellbinding production, I was reminded of the devastating judgement handed out to the three al-Jazeera journalists only this week and the impact for Egypt’s civil society and future.
Arthur Miller’s play details the 1692 witch trials and hangings in Salem but the play incubated during Senator McCarthy’s work on the House Un-American Activities Committee, when the playwright’s own friend Elia Kazan refused then relented and gave names to the commission. The beautiful and mysterious set is sombre and smoky when Tituba (Sarah Niles) walks on murmuring and breathing heavily. We are immediately transported to another time and place.
The play retells an incident in puritan Massachusetts when a group of girls, led by Abigail Williams, accused Salem residents of witchcraft. The accusations led to a sort of communal madness gradually taking possession of the town. At the heart of the play, stand a farmer, John Proctor, and his wife. At first, when Goodie Proctor is accused, we are certain that such an absurd rumour will be quashed quickly. The genius of Miller, however, is that the silly accusation then turns into vague suspicions, then to arrest so that when she is brought in front of the judges, we know that this good woman won’t stain her husband’s reputation which will lead to his and her downfall.
As the story unravels, more pious inhabitants stand accused and everyone is condemning their neighbours to the gallows to save their own neck (and possibly get hold of a neighbours’ land), so that even Proctor’s attempt to clear his wife’s name only ends in the authority’s greater assurance that they are doing the right thing. But, as with all things human, it’s not the supernatural witchcraft that people should fear but the more and all too prevalent human sins. In this case, lust, jealousy, revenge to name but a few. Abigail lusts after John Proctor and is jealous of his wife. If she could only get rid of her, she could have Proctor to herself. But when he spurns her and tells her that he wont fall for her again, she wants revenge against him and his wife, who caught them together, threw her out and speaks badly of her. For the other villagers, any old fight over a pig or cow will be enough justification to send someone to death. Pretty Soon, everyone is either accused or accusing and the girls are more than willing to fall to the ground twitching, writhing and screaming apparently taken by the devil, the minute their story comes under scrutiny.
Even the most pious villager, Rebecca Nurse, is condemned to death. The only way for those that stand accused to be freed is to confess to witchcraft and implicate others. If you refuse, you must be trying to hide something and are therefore guilty and if you confess you are most definitely guilty. A bit like the inquisition’s witch trials that found that if a woman was submerged in water and sank (and unfortunately died in the process), she was considered innocent, but if she floated, she was a witch and would be put to death.
Yaël Farber’s powerful production is pitch perfect and the final scenes between Proctor and his wife are devastating and incredibly moving. As power shifts and anger rises, Farber directs the play’s crescendo with brio. When John Proctor finally refuses to confess to something he knows is a lie, you feel the air leaving your body.
The very large cast are excellent. Richard Armitage’s Proctor bravely stands-up to the witches but cannot escape the guilt of his marital infidelity. He is strong in the face of injustice and remains all too believable as the hard-working farmer too busy tilling the land to attend church and listen to a clergyman more concerned with ostentation than scripture. Anna Madeley is reserved and self-righteous as Elisabeth Proctor but ultimately tender and just. Samantha Colley is strong and fiery as the cast out lover who thought she could get Proctor to leave his wife. Michael Thomas is all venom as Reverend Parris, the vindictive and materialistic parson who would rather make a buck than save a soul. Adrian Schiller, as Reverend John Hale, is excellent as the cleric who thinks he is doing God’s work but finally rebels against the indiscriminate nature of the trials.
Jack Ellis is indomitable and ferocious as Deputy Governor Danforth, whose presence alone makes everyone quake. Ellis, in his long black coat, is demonic in his strict obstinacy and desire for absolute authority. William Guant is admirable as Giles Corey, an old cantankerous but courageous man who takes on the judges and tries to prove that Thomas Putnam (played with fire and brimstone by Harry Attwell) wants to take his land but when he will not give the name of his informant, he is put in prison and ultimately crushed by heavy stones as he refuses to divulge his source. Ann Firbank is quiet but deeply moving as a pious Rebecca Nurse. Nathalie Gavin is convincing and vulnerable as the ignorant Mary Warren who initially pretends to see the devil for a “bit of sport” but comes to see the error of her ways only to break down and re-join her sisters when faced with possible death. It is almost unbearable to watch this young maid being bullied by the courts and flounder under such intimidation. The remainder of the large cast are all very good.
The Old Vic is still set in the round (which is lovely except for the fact that the seats are so low as to make your knees higher than your waist – very uncomfortable) and Farber makes use of all entries and exit to great effect. Soutra Gilmour’s beautiful set is simple with dark shadows mirroring the plays themes and suffusing the atmosphere with ominous dread. The grime under the nails of these villagers and their shabby clothes hides many secrets and resentments that come to the fore as the evening progresses. Tim Lutkin who did the atmospheric lighting should be commended for creating a mood of darkness and oppression. This is such great theatre that, even at almost three hours, the time just flew by.