I first, and last, saw Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in 1974, twenty- one years after its premiere, as part of my “O” level school studies. It made an enduring impact. Although the McCarthyite purges had long since gone, the “Reds under the bed” paranoia still lingered, and the Cold War was at Arctic temperatures. “The Crucible” is an allegory for those times, and I was curious to see how, forty- three years on, its themes had endured.
A towering panelled set with rotating central stage and mature tree trunks provides the backdrop for the first scene, accompanied by a foreboding pulsing soundtrack, creating both a sense of openness, and claustrophobia. A journalistic maxim is to “say it in the first paragraph”. Miller does exactly that with an opening which embraces possession, secrets, naked dancing, adultery and jeopardy for the protagonists. An object lesson in fine, gripping, drama.
Productions of this play walk a tightrope. Scenes of demonic possession can either be scenes of disturbing hysteria, or hysterically funny. Fortunately director Douglas Rintoul achieves the former, rather than the latter. The box office names are Charlie Condou ( Reverend Hale) and Victoria Yeates (Elizabeth Proctor) famous for “Coronation St” and “Call the Midwife” respectively, yet it was Lucy Keirl ( Abigail) and Cornelius Clarke ( Rev Parris) who caught my eye.
It is difficult not to make the second half of this play a success with its ingredients of courtroom drama, and personal moral conflicts. Jonathan Tafler seizes the part of Judge Danforth, with an imperious, imposing, dominating performance, “ a person is either with the Court, or he must be counted against it”. However the second half belongs to Eoin Slattery ( John Proctor) as he wrestles with the dilemma of telling the truth about his adultery with Abigail, as the price for exposing her lies.
As a play, its stature has grown in my estimation to become one of the essential plays of the twentieth century. In writing fear of witchcraft as an allegory for fear of Communism, Miller has crafted something in which the allegorical element can be interchangeable with many things. Currently, it is Muslim terrorism.
As a production, it works, but not unreservedly so. Victoria Yeates gives us a measured, restrained Elizabeth Proctor, bewildered by what is happening around her. Charlie Condou is a fine actor, but seemed uneasy in the role of Rev Hale. Furthermore, I was sat half way along the stalls, and struggled to hear some of the lines, not least because too many were delivered downstage. Yet as an ensemble piece, it convinces with the mass hysteria palpable, the sense of injustice raw.
Lucy Keirl is terrific. Did she use John Proctor, or did he use her? Are her actions the result of Proctor’s offered, then withdrawn affections? Or is she really a malevolent schemer? The strength of Keirl’s Abigail is that she forces us to ask all of these questions, but provides no answers.
Proceedings are greatly enhanced by a fine set designed by Anouk Schiltz and striking costumes which contrast women in period 17th Century dresses and men in tweed suits. The latter a nod to the timelessness of the themes. The projected stage directions as characters came on stage was innovative, and effective. Be aware that it is a long night, the playing time is just over two and a half hours, including the interval that means it will be three hours before you emerge from the theatre again. A particularly pleasing aspect of the evening was a younger than average, ethnically diverse, audience. Realised by Selladoor productions and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in association with Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Mathew Cundy Productions, “The Crucible” continues to Sat 10th and continues on tour in Glasgow.