Reviews West End & Central Published 10 July 2014

The Crucible

Old Vic ⋄ 21st June - 13th September 2014

Season of the witch.

Stewart Pringle

Cards on the table: I’ve never liked The Crucible. I’ve never given much thought as to why I’ve never liked The Crucible. It’s just never been my bag. Cheeky bit of Death of a Salesman? Sure. Snifter of All My Sons? Fill your boots. I’d even go a fair bit out of my way to see a solid bit of Broken Glass. But The Crucible? Generally give it a wide berth. Easier said than done, but up until now I’ve managed to go through life without sitting down for a really ‘proper’ production.

Like everything at The Old Vic, this looks like a properly proper one, and its proximity in both time and space to Ivo van Hove’s skin-peeling View From A Bridge makes this visit to Salem feel timely too. There’s an inevitable hope that some of that show’s monolithic weight and stress will have made its way down The Cut.

Yaël Farber’s production is certainly monumental. Rising in strange and ancient solidity from the dark and bare stage like a stone circle at midnight. Presented in the round, which the Old Vic have oddly begun to tout as a feature, the air is filled with sub-bass rumblings and the sour smell of burning herbs. A sizeable cast arrange sparse furniture like the components of a ritual, the scenes are set with witchy, ominous purpose. It’s impressively evocative, it portends, and it ratchets up the tension for those early scenes, where benighted Reverend Parris bemoans the sudden catatonia of his daughter.

Farber’s cast is absolutely superb – this play of the destruction and self-destruction of self-deluding men has some wonderful men to smash up. Richard Armitage broods the living heck out of John Proctor, Michael Thomas is a wonderfully fatuous Parris, and Adrian Schiller takes the biscuit as the tortured Reverend Hale, who finds himself incinerated by a fire that he did so much to kindle and stoke.

If the men in this production have a tendency to bellow their way through the madder moments in the final acts, the women are more consistent and no less impressive. Samantha Colley nails the seductive ring-leader of the witch-callers, Abigail Williams, and Anna Madeley does brilliant, subtle work as the beleaguered Elizabeth Proctor.

Smaller roles are no less skilfully filled, and Harry Attwell deserves particular attention for his detestably gurning Thomas Putnam, as does William Gaunt, whose Giles Corey manages to wring a few laughs out of a production with little time for comic relief.

Unlike Jan Versweyveld’s design for View…, where the design both dominated the production and absented itself completely – giving total space and freedom to the play and players for the most-part before asserting itself in the strongest possible terms – Soutra Gilmour’s work here contains strange superfluities. The dressing of the auditorium in filthy rags nicely conceals the gilding, but two large crumbling structures at either side of the stage stand unused and unnecessary.

And that, essentially, is that. We’re left with an extremely handsome production of a play which, for my money, still stubbornly refuses to open up and blossom into anything commensurate with its reputation. Its four acts plough towards their separate catastrophes like landslides scoring their way down a mountainside, however Farber attempts to smudge their edges. It deals in thick, hot slabs of emotion, surfacing in gasps and screams and howls. Its trial scenes fair vibrate with tension, and Miller’s mastery of familial tensions make the scenes in Proctor’s home into squirming anatomies of passive aggression.

It’s not a subtle play, neither in its text nor its HUAC-skewering subtext, and it relies on endless sledgehammer blows of emotion to distract from aspects which are slightly uncomfortable, and others which are downright unpleasant. Because ultimately The Crucible tells the story of vicious, cowardly crimes conducted by old, powerful men by planting the lions’ share of that iniquity into a group of young, powerless girls. The men stride through the play like tragically flawed titans, speechifying and crumpling in inner-torment – the women writhe hysterically, and often practically anonymously, or stand in wistful, placid martyrdom.

Women are often the less-trumpeted victims of Miller’s narratives – never permitted to enjoy the vast and vital struggles of their husbands and fathers, though usually taking on the bulk of the suffering – but it’s in The Crucible that this tendency is at its barest. Abigail is particularly ill-used, as her promising story-line utterly evaporates mid-way through Act 4 and she is never heard from again. Elizabeth seems to at least have the philandering John’s number, but the scenes in which she refuses to allow him to take the blame for his disastrous dalliances because she ‘kept a cold house’ are cringeworthy, as well as unworthy. There are occasional allusions to the plight of women in this 17th century context, particularly in the suspicion so easily cast on reading, but these are faint gestures compared to the throbbing, quasi-mystical Passion of the Proctor.

In her programme essay, Sharon Monteith insists that The Crucible explores ‘civil rights, specifically the persecution, detention and trial of demonised groups’, but the actual evidence for this is slight. Those imprisoned within The Crucible are almost exclusively victims of village squabbles and legal disputes. While it’s true that initially the majority of victims are women, the finger eventually comes to point at our brawny male hero. The Crucible’s true victims, the women who are trapped in the eye of this storm, remain more or less voiceless. This score-settling may well be a fair reflection of a good proportion of HUAC’s activities, but it belies The Crucible’s ability to speak to a greater universal toleration.

For fans of the play, things probably don’t get much better than this. Armitage is everything you could wish a John Proctor to be, and he’s supported by a cast of serious quality and a production that moves with care and purpose through the text. It’s a considerable thing, well-fitted and polished to a rich shine, but it still looks like a coffin to me: gloomy and unpromising, however admirable the carpentry that’s gone into it.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

The Crucible Show Info


Directed by Yael Farber

Cast includes Richard Armitage, Samantha Colley, Jack Ellis, William Gaunt, Anna Madeley, Adrian Schiller, Michael Thomas, Harry Attwell, Marama Corlett, Ann Firbank, Natalie Gavin, Christopher Godwin, Hannah Hutch, Lauren Lyle, Paddy Navin, Sarah Niles, Tom Peters, Rebecca Saire, Neil Salvage, Alan Vicary, Daisy Waterstone, Matt Weyland and Zara White.

Link http://www.oldvictheatre.com/

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