Word of advice: never look back at your GCSE English notes unless you want to squirm until your skin turns inside out and the pages become damp with disgorged entrails. I spent many laborious Thursday afternoons studying The Crucible and carefully neon-highlighting its ‘themes’. It’s a strange play to read as a teenage girl, with its ultimate implicit belief in the all-conquering, murderous thirst for vengeance of a 17-year-old woman scorned. The words hysteria and guilt and reputation and jealousy, all scrawled in the margins in banned ink.
Arthur Miller took the true story of the Salem witch trials and bent it to his ends. He turned Abigail from an 11-year-old into a teenager, and created the narrative of her all-consuming lust for John Proctor, which meant that after he ended their affair she, like a praying mantis, she was obliged to destroy him.
Jay Miller’s production for The Yard looks cool enough to delight any teenager, girl or not: it’s The Yard, so of course it looks like it belongs in 2019 and not a moment before, with Cécile Trémolières’s set design and Jess Bernberg’s lighting design creating a shifting, dream-like, postmodern frame for painterly puritan references. There’s a young audience looking young in their 90s redux uniform of bucket hats and scrunchies and leopard print stretch-flares. The Crucible is the first revival to be staged here, so perhaps unsurprisingly, this production feels very, very aware of the fact that this is an old play – a set text, no less.
The cast start on labelled school (or church) style chairs, saying their lines by rote, then gradually getting up and entering its world. It’s a device which adds a self-consciousness to the whole exercise: a little ironic distance, a little holding-at-arms-length which reminds me of Ned Bennett’s production of Equus. In both, highly visible directorial flourishes (flashes of strobe, eerie figures, twisted rope) are used to accentuate the text, to add horror-film-influenced shocks and starts, but not to subvert or complicate its essential message. Both are entirely reverential of their source texts, staging them in full, in a sexy 21st century frame.
In this production, this decision pays off most obviously in the inclusion of an often-left-out scene where Abigail and John meet in the woods, at the height of the trial. She’s intense and disturbed; they breathe their lines into microphones, in a kind of dream-like landscape that’s miles away from the formal trial scenes. Nina Cassells’s reading of Abigail isn’t as a defiant temptress – she’s something stranger than that, a girl who’s haunted by real visions and torments. She made me think of all the explanations that have been put forward for the real-life Salem accusor’s behaviour: poisoned grain or rare syndromes or psychological damage, nothing as petty as vengeance.
At other points, I wished that the experimentation went deeper into this story’s thickets – pruned the text, confronted it, added to it, interpreted it. Miller’s narrative has an undeniable momentum that can withstand pretty much anything (this production’s superfluous video screen included – which used footage to spell things out, not to complicate them) and here, it builds to something thrilling, a taut clash between individual morality and the runaway train of a legal system that has to justify its own decisions, by hanging if necessary. But it’s also a narrative that’s frustrating for its relentless focus on John Proctor, with a second act that focuses on his Jesus-in-the-desert style wrestles for his soul and public reputation. Caoilfhionn Dunne is compelling to watch in this central role, especially in her intense scenes with Abigail, and for the visible pain on her face as her character manipulates his wife, then sees her crumble. But somehow this production doesn’t quite make Proctor’s struggle tangible enough to be completely gripping – figures in latex masks add atmosphere, but they don’t speak specifically to the mess of sex and guilt inhabiting his brain. And in the long scenes where he’s interrogated by three rival court justices, Abigail’s slunk off to who knows where. Into the forest.
It’s always fascinated me that Arthur Miller took the story of a witch trial where the victims were overwhelmingly female and turned it into a story of one man’s martyrdom – while (especially if you view the whole story as an analogy for the McCarthy-sponsored anti-communist ‘witch hunts’ of ’50s America) teenage girls become aligned with the mite of the establishment. Female hysteria tied to civic justice. A rare thing, in a world where real-life young women who complain of ills done to them absolutely can’t expect the weight of the court to come down on their side.
As a teenager, I always found The Crucible exciting and frustratingly just short of what I wanted – I wanted to eavesdrop on the conversations between Abigail and her charmed (in all senses) circle. Their murderous struggle to do the wrong thing felt thrilling, far more interesting than Proctor’s struggle to do the right thing. Maybe I’m ready to see someone dive into those particular woods, to follow them in their secret dancing and rituals. To feel their glee as they’re suddenly empowered to kill anyone who thwarts them, however mildly, in a puritanical society that systematically crushes the desires and ambitions of young women. But reviewing, like GCSE English, has rules. So I’ll finish by reviewing the production I saw, not some hypothetical one I wanted, and say that although the themes it brought out weren’t the ones that spoke to me, it made the play feel real and exciting and alive – its terror brought out with the sickly green of a neon highlighter.
The Crucible is on at Yard Theatre until 11th May. More info and tickets here.