Arthur Miller’s The Crucible might have been written as an allegory for McCarthyism but, in today’s political climate, it feels sadly more relevant than ever – a tale of ordinary people floundering in the face of hysterical mob mentality and overreaching, unyielding authority. Director Douglas Rintoul’s new take on a classic may never quite be as compelling as it could be, but it remains powerful nonetheless.
An overlong production is hobbled right out of the gate by design and direction that has an almost wilful disregard for sightlines. Anouk Schiltz’s set is stark and striking, but occasionally ill-thought out: with young Betty Parris’ sickbed in the foreground, all the actors are pushed into the background, and from my seat in the stalls, the first 30 minutes or so were a frustrating exercise in trying to follow characters who were partially obscured by the bed’s thick wooden headboard or the shoulder of whomever they were speaking to.
When the action moves to John Proctor’s (Eoin Slattery) house, the situation improves, but it takes a while to recover and the piece is never quite as taut as it needs to be. It’s only when the tragedy starts inexorably to gain momentum, and it becomes apparent that no one is safe from the fallout of the trials – not even those who were so self-righteous in initiating them – that the writing truly exerts itself, and the production builds to a conclusion of no little emotional heft.
The cast give solid performances throughout. Slattery is angry and dignified as the man hanging onto his sense of self while everything conspires against him maintaining it; Victoria Yeates is sympathetic as his much-wronged wife. Charlie Condou is convincing as Reverend Hale, whose initial smugness and self-satisfaction in his oft-repeated belief that the innocent have nothing to fear gives way to horror as events unfold. Cornelius Clarke is suitably blustering and self-important as Reverend Parris, while Jonathan Tafler impresses as Judge Danforth, in whose Kafkaesque court it’s impossible not to self-condemn. Diana Yekinni takes the potentially problematic role of Tituba and imbues her with a heady combination of fear and self-awareness: she knows exactly how little she is valued, so cannily aligns herself with Abigail’s cause. If Lucy Keirl’s Abigail Williams is a little one-note – a vindictive teenage harpy, with little sense of any more complex motives – she plays it with a knowing slyness that serves her well.
Whatever the production’s failings, they can’t dilute the essential truth at its core: that if you stir up a whirlwind of suspicion and hatred, you create a tempest that’s impossible to control. Alas, it seems a lesson history is intent on ignoring.
The Crucible is on at the Theatre Royal Brighton until 29th April 2017. Click here for more details.