'The Crucible' review or 'Are you afraid of the dark?'
The Crucible, Arthur Miller
The Old Vic, 8th July 2014
With America in the grip of McCarthyism, Arthur Miller went to visit his long-term collaborator, the theatre director Elia Kazan. Kazan was set to give names to McCarthy’s Committee and was keen for Miller’s approval – or at least his forgiveness. Miller was en route to Salem, keen to study the 1692 witch trials which would inform his play, ‘The Crucible’, and help him make sense of an America warped by hatred and fear. For all the love he felt for Kazan, Miller could not muster his forgiveness: ‘I felt a silence rising around me, an impending and invisible wash of dulled vibrations between us, like an endless moaning musical note through which we could not hear or speak anymore. It was sadness, purely mournful, deadening.’ There couldn’t be a better description for Yaël Farber’s phenomenal production of ‘The Crucible’; a low and silent wail of a show, which gradually builds into a devastating clamour.
The Old Vic stage remains in the round format, with the audience crowding in on the stage, and designer Soutra Gilmour has draped the interiors with silvery grey sheets. The lights are rarely raised above ‘gloomy’ and everything feels cramped and ominous. What once felt like a safe and predictable space has, in this excruciatingly tense production, become a close and heated cauldron. Very few props or special effects are employed. This is a spare but brutal production, infused with billowing steam, flickering shadows, sinewy music and edgy, murmuring movement.
The show begins with a cloaked and creepy séance. Black-hooded figures glide through the space and Richard Hammarton’s churning music begins its enervating, night-long campaign. A black lady comes on stage with a steaming bowl and looks out at us with glazed and desolate eyes. She jolts and judders about the stage, hurt and controlled by a force we cannot see. At first she is upright, her shoulder blades forced back but, as the cloaked figures flow through the space, this broken woman slides down and down until she is finally on her knees. No words have yet been uttered but – only a few minutes in – the inevitably of Miller’s tragedy reaches through your mouth and grabs you at the guts. It will linger there for the rest of the night, squeezing tight until you long for release.
The tension never lets up – and that’s really something, given this production is 3.5 hours long. It’s a gruelling running time but every moment feels vital. The performances are some of the most purely defined and crystallised character studies I’ve seen. It’s as if boiling water has been poured over the actors, leaving only the raw skin of these characters behind.
Samantha Colley plays young servant-girl Abigail, the touch-paper for Miller’s tragedy and one of the first accusers in the Salem Witch trials. When Abigail and a gaggle of girls are caught dancing in the forest late at night - and a few of the girls fall curiously ill – Abigail turns the finger of suspicion on the villagers of Salem and claims that she and the other ‘children’ have been possessed by the devil. Colley is a swooping vulture in girl form, with just enough fear and passion flying off her to keep her human. When she hisses at the other ‘children’ – ‘I can make you wish you’d never seen the sun go down’ – a collective shiver runs through the stalls.
Richard Armitage is an old oak of an actor as the flawed but good-hearted farmer, John Proctor, who once fell for Abigail’s charms and has been suffering ever since. Armitage’s Proctor is the stillness to Abigail’s whirling passions and, the more she pleads for him, the more resistant he becomes. The scenes between John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley), also tingle in a way I had not expected. When John hugs his wife – arms hovering about her side - we glimpse the embers of a passion they once shared.
Everything about Armitage’s John Proctor is just a bit too big. When he hugs his wife, we worry she might break. When John slurps at the soup, the bowl looks tiny and the spoon liable to snap at any moment. When John stomps about the cramped stage, he looks like he might smash through the floorboards. And when he roars – and boy can this man roar – it feels like the windows will explode. Everything about Armitage’s John Proctor is over-scaled and out of place; he is the physical embodiment of a tragic hero who simply cannot find his place in the world in which he lives.
The other performances are equally well defined, each character carved out in way that makes Miller’s tragedy exquisitely, stomach-churningly, inevitable. They’re the type of performances so convincing you know you cannot cry out and interrupt them but so excruciating – and each one such a crucial part in this tragic chain of events - that you long to cry out and stop things escalating. I have never puffed, groaned and inwardly screamed quite this much at the theatre.
Michael Thomas begins the night as the laughably pompous Reverend Parris, a man more interested in his golden candles than enlightening his followers. But as the witch trials intensify and he is afforded more power, Parris becomes a caricature of himself; a pointed predator of a priest, pecking at the accused and cawing about the God almighty. Adrian Schiller follows a similar trajectory as the smug Reverend Hale, who looks more like a magician than a priest when he is first summoned to examine the ‘possessed girls’. Captivated by his own fears – and emboldened by the goodness that all this evil must imply – the Reverend Hale is seduced by the very evil spirits he claims to be expelling. By the time the two realise the blood-bath they have helped to kick-start, it is too late.
What comes across so strongly in this production is the disturbing and destructive relationship between belief and fear, religion and evil, comfort and suspicion. Throughout the play, it is a desire to believe in ‘god’ and good that fuels a desire to hunt out and condemn ‘evil’. The one cannot exist without the other – and that is one hell of a fragile balancing act, on which to hang the world.