The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Summer 2014
The Crucible is not my favourite Arthur Miller play, but I can't imagine a stronger production than this one from director Yaël Farber. And if you start with more sympathy toward the play than I, you should find this a thoroughly satisfying experience.
Miller's subject is the Salem witch trials of the Seventeenth Century. In his account some teenage girls caught doing something mildly naughty cover themselves by picking up on the suggestion they were tempted by demonic forces and running with that excuse, goaded on by a particularly vindictive one of them, until it's too late to back down and half the town has been condemned for witchcraft.
As every schoolchild knows, Miller wrote The Crucible in response to the anti-Communist hysteria that engulfed America in the early 1950s, and one of my problems with the play is that the allegory is so transparent – some of the courtroom dialogue could come straight out of Congressional hearings of the period – that it has sometimes seemed more a historical document than a drama that can live on its own merits.
Perhaps enough time has passed for the play to step out of the shadow of its topical references (though the programme notes for this production are devoted largely to explaining them all).
Certainly director Farber and her cast invest it with a passion and dramatic immediacy (by which I mean people shout a lot) I've not encountered before, and the play works onstage – and not just as a library book about the 1950s – better than I've experienced before.
Miller's special power as a dramatist, here and in his other plays, lies in charting the psychological journey and emotional torment – and thus the extraordinary courage – of a character coming to discover the truth about himself.
The Crucible centres on John Proctor, a simple farmer sufficiently steeped in American Puritanism to be vaguely aware of his own moral imperfection. Being caught up in the madness – indeed, being a major target of that vindictive girl – takes him on a double journey, from a conviction of his sinfulness to the acceptance of his essential goodness, and from a protective mask of cynical detachment to the discovery that ultimately there is something that he is willing to die for.
Richard Armitage combines a strong presence with suggestions from the start that Proctor is yearning for something more to believe in than the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the local preacher and something warmer to feel than his seemingly cold wife provides.
His Proctor is moved to passion and even violence repeatedly in the play, and Armitage helps us feel that it is an internal frustration as much as the external situation that is generating such energy.
For all the power of his performance, Armitage does not dominate the play. I don't know how intentional or even conscious this was, but director Farber and actor Adrian Schiller take the relatively minor character of John Hale on an even more lacerating and sympathetic journey of self-discovery, making the play at least as much about him as about Proctor.
An experienced witch-hunter, the Reverend Hale is brought in to lead the investigation in Salem and begins in righteous fury and commitment. But as things spiral out of control he begins to doubt not only individual convictions and the methods of the court, but the purity of his own motives.
If Proctor's journey is toward the discovery that he is a better man than he thought, Hale's is the progressive loss of everything he had been absolutely certain of, and in a much quieter performance than Armitage's Adrian Schiller adeptly takes our sympathies and the play away from him.
Anna Madeley is a strong, largely quiet presence as Proctor's wife, Samantha Colley appropriately frightening as the evil teenager, and Christopher Godwin chilling as the trial judge who, unlike Reverend Hale, never wavers in his conviction that he is right in all things.
A further accolade for Yaël Farber's direction must lie in the fact that although the play runs three and a half hours, it feels much shorter than many plays of half that length.
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