The lights rise and we are in a wood. Trees sketch woodblock prints onto the horizon and, illuminated by the changing sky, mark the time of day. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ set is undoubtedly the star of this new production of The Crucible and functions in many ways to add interest to an otherwise fairly traditional staging of Arthur Miller’s classic.
The trees, firstly, are a masterly addition. To what degree they faithfully represent the Massachusetts landscape, I am unsure, but in recreating the proximity of nature to settler villages in 1692 they continuously remind the audience that this is a story situated within the great unknown. As with most fairy tales, there is a deep dark wood out there and fear of what might lurk there, both literally and metaphorically, is a part of what drives people to blindly cushion themselves with extreme religion and snap judgments of character. In this land in which danger lurks outside – a land that no matter how many technological advances take place in modernity will always exist in the human mind to some extent – the townsfolk search to create known truths by crude distinctions of good and evil, stark divisions between the condemned and the innocent.
This month’s Vogue quotes Ex-Guardian Editor-in-chief Alan Rushbridger in categorising the present era of journalism as “We swim in unknown unknowns,” in contrast to the “known knowns” of the scene 20 years prior. Miller famously wrote The Crucible as an analogy of the Red Scare McCarthy trials of 1953 and Tom Morris, director of this production, continues this line of thought in his introductory comments. The most disturbing and destroying of modern parallels is found in false allegations of child abuse, allegations that once made are ‘investigated’ through the solicitation of more allegations, rather than the genuine investigation of evidence and indeed the very fundamental point of a court of law: to discover the true course of events regardless of what people – many of whom may have been nowhere near the scene – claim took place. This world of “unknown unknowns” may be made smaller via the internet, but outside still lurks that dark forest, perhaps made even darker by technology humans diminish in size next to, and our fear of those woods is still resulting in a desire to paint the Wicked and the Good with one crude brush stroke.
Of all the aspects of the setting, the choice of on-stage seating is the most striking choice. Inspired by old lecture and operating theatres, Hopkins has taken Morris’ original idea and made it into something attractively sleek with undeniable audience wow-factor. However, the design does come with some problems, because although theatre has now been transformed into the round, it also hasn’t. This ‘round’ is more the shape of a rich tea finger, with the stage placed at one end of it. The problem this ultimately creates it that the cast still, especially at crucial moments, have a tendency to turn their backs on the on-stage audience as still deliver all their lines to the auditorium audience. This is particularly true with the speeches of John Proctor. The idea of on-stage seating is a really interesting one, especially given the on-stage audience’s second function here as a de facto jury to events, and offers those sitting on-stage a unique perspective on the performance, including the proximity to decipher all the mumbles and whispers of the cast. This employment of the device feels like the beginning of an exploration of this, one that presently has flaws but feels full of potential.
Aside from the setting, this is a fairly conventional telling of Millers’ tale, right down to the choice of historical costume and decisions on cast accents. The Crucible is, as a text, one with serious gender flaws. Our hero of the hour, John Proctor, is but a man who had sex with his teenage maid before sanctioning her loosing her job and being semi-ostracised in the community via rumour-spreading. In the 1996 film version directed by Nicholas Hytner, we get an especially un-nuanced portrayal of the wrath of a woman (Winona Ryder) scorned whilst Daniel Day-Lewis struts around like a cowboy before eventually sorting out the mess all these hysterical women keep making – he then ends the play by essentially stealing the limelight of the quietly dignified peace-keeping Rebecca Nurse. It is to Morris’ credit that in this production we at least see Abigail Williams as genuinely heartbroken – crazy with grief for the man who promised her love, she is desperately clawing at the soil around her, soil which quickly turns to mud as she, along with everyone else, slides helplessly downwards.