Just over 60 years since its premiere at Bristol Old Vic, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible returns to this beautiful theatre and the stage looks as it has never done before.
Miller’s chilling play about the Salem witch trials in 1692 Massachusetts, where hundreds of villagers were rounded up and 20 of them eventually executed, accused falsely of witchcraft by others in their tight Puritan community, draws parallels with the McCarthyist (communist) witch trails that were sweeping across the USA in the 1950s.
His telling of paranoia, power struggles and gossip is, though, ever relevant in today’s modern world, with its scare-mongering, fear-evoking news coverage, fundamentalism and social media. The suspicion that human beings have of others and the perceived need for self-preservation will always reign and so, it seems, The Crucible will always hold a mirror to society.
On the brink of womanhood, Abigail Williams (Rona Morison) is the ringleader of a group of young girls who have been spotted dancing in the forest. Dancing is forbidden and to do so naked is unspeakably terrible. In order to protect themselves, the girls insist that they were dancing with the devil, enticed into action by (mostly) women in the village. Fearful that their children are being possessed, when the names start to drop off the convincing tongues of the girls, the god-fearing villagers accept their stories and, as deceit becomes vengeance, the lies become so elaborate that it’s possible to forget the real truth or what caused all of this heartache to begin with.
Central to the drama are John Proctor (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Elizabeth Proctor (Neve McIntosh), a loving, if slightly blemished, couple. Caught up in the web of lies, unable to control proceedings, the anguish that Lennox Kelly portrays is strong and the price that he has to pay for his own indiscretion is deep. McIntosh manages to look humble, forgiving, strong and perplexed all at the same time, her inward suffering making you want to scream at Morison’s Abigail as she switches between child-like innocence and womanly bloody-mindedness, “Please, stop this madness!’ But she cannot; the charade has gone too far.
This is an extraordinarily strong cast. From Daniel Weymen’s attractive and increasingly unsure Reverend John Hale to Saskia Portway’s grief stricken, answer-seeking Ann Putnam, to the haunting, sallow faces of the young women who started the whole awful chain of events rolling, this is theatre at its best.
The Crucible is directed by the much-respected Tom Morris (Artistic Director at the Old Vic) and he produces a qualilty that we’ve come to expect, tying up the ends and gifting a piece that cries out for humanity, for society, with all of its flaws, passions, hope and contradictions. Robert Innes Hopkins’ set and costume design is outstanding in its apparent simplicity, an alteration here or a tweak there converting the stage from forest to home to courtroom. Real trees are the backdrop for much of the audience. But not for all of us …
Because some of us get the opportunity to sit on the stage, behind the actors, looking out across the whole theatre, hundreds of faces pointing towards us! We are co-conspirateurs, the jury, victims. We’re so close to the cast that I could touch many of them, can see the spray spewing from their passionate mouths, witness the lament in those eyes. Really, what an experience. Innes Hopkins, together with lightning designer, Richard Howell, creates an intense ambience that builds to a breath-holding crescendo; who’d have thought that the light from one candle could be so terrifyingly powerful?
I cannot fault this production. Humankind on the other hand …
The Crucible shows at Bristol Old Vic until 7th November