First a confession: In 20 odd years of living and working in theatre this is the first production of The Crucible I have ever seen. I know what happens in it of course. It’s one of those classics that seep into your consciousness by cultural osmosis. And I have read it. Or rather I have read most of it. I remember as I slip into my seat this Thursday matinee in Leeds that I stopped reading a few pages from the end. I have had my whole life an immediate, visceral horror of executions bordering on phobia (too early exposure to a Madame Tussaud’s image of a guillotine I think). So I put the book down. I knew what was going to happen.
The thing that most people ‘know’ about The Crucible is that, though it is ostensibly set during the 1692- 93 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, it is ‘really’ about the McCarthy ‘Anti-American Activities’ trials of 1950s, intended to root out Communist threat, ‘Reds under the beds’.
James Brining, Artistic Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse and director of this production, has mercifully little truck with this interpretation: ‘I’m not terribly interested in the McCarthy trials’, he says in the programme notes. Instead, Brining and his designer Colin Richmond have created a contemporary world, with strip lighting, a mostly bare wooden stage and the kind of utilitarian chairs you’d find in community centres. Costumes are contemporary versions of those from the 17th century, such as you’d find in enclosed communities such as the Amish. Part of me loves this clever contemporary take on it which neatly brings the play into our world but explains the religiosity and lack of technology. Part of me wanted it to go the whole hog and ditch the Amish construct and just give us modern dress Crucible. But that’s a different production for a different day.
What this play is about is a community and it is glorious, and too, too rare, to watch that community brought on stage with a company of 16 actors plus young performers. It is one of my pet peeves that contemporary writers aren’t being allowed to write plays about communities, the kind of plays that have been the heart and purpose of theatre for centuries, because they can only have three performers, four at a push. Brining’s production underlines the importance of the community. Through the first act at the back of the stage chairs are set up as community church, the characters move between the scene and these seats. It is a constant interplay between the life of the narrative and the life of the wider community, as words and actions of the characters affect and are affected by the opinions and values of the group. These chairs take on a symbolic life of their own, becoming a church, a hearing, tumbling and falling as chaos engulfs the community at the ends of Act I and Act II.
Brining makes excellent use of the young women, the accusers in witch craft trial, and young men as Proctor children, bringing depth and characterisation to the wider life of the play. Played with confidence and sensitivity by WYP Youth Theatre, they are not just background filler to scenes but an insight into the reality and complexity of this community.
At the back of the stage a huge back drop becomes enormous back lit screen as shadows of performers leap and twist, beginning with (actually quite decorous) satanic dancing. Intentional or not, these shadows become a metaphor for the play itself as they loom to the full height of the Quarry stage and shrink down to human size again. This production of The Crucible is about us, all of us, not the persecuted vs the persecutors but all us human beings, how enormous our passions and heroism, how tiny and petty we can be. The feud between Reverend Samuel Parris and John Proctor is started over gold candlesticks and firewood and ends in life and death.
I was a bit wary going in to watch a play which seems to put the blame on believing teenage girls, given what we know now about abused young women not being believed. Kate Phillips, a recent drama school graduate, gives a mesmerising and subtle performance as the disturbed and disturbing Abigail Williams. However, I did think the production could have pushed a bit harder against the suggestion in Miller’s text that the unfolding disaster is down to Abigail’s calculated manipulation; Phillip’s watchful, smiling presence in scenes does suggest knowing deceit rather than a damaged young girl swept up with being needed and wanted for the first time in her life. After all, what do we think now about an adult man who sleeps with his teenage employee?
However, this is too good a production to give a singular interpretation of any character; no one is entirely to blame, no one is entirely innocent. It is lead by Martin Marquez’s John Proctor, an engaging involving portrayal of a working man concerned with his farm and his family driven step by step to defend his life. But Brining has brought out rich detail in all the performances. There is truly no such thing as small role in this production; Marlene Sidaway and Dominic Gately bring weight and substance to characters of Elizabeth Nurse and Ezekiel Cheever who inhabit the world of the play even when not actively in the scene. Verity Kirk, on the Playhouse Graduate Actor scene, makes a huge impact in the part of Mary Warren, a terrified pawn in other people’s struggle.
Invidious as it is to pull out particular performances in a strong company I have to mention the luminous, extraordinary Susie Trayling as Elizabeth Proctor. Trayling is one of those fortunate performers who can convey huge depth of feeling and thought in the smaller gesture or look. Previously a beautiful Olivia in Twelfth Night at the Playhouse, here her fine boned face becomes haunted and keen. You somehow believe that she believes in her own plainness. Even more of a revelation was Daniel Poyser as Reverend Hale. Poyser gives a charismatic, convincing, complex portrayal of a good man, forced by circumstances into evil. I absolutely do not understand why this man isn’t a huge, huge star. Also a pleasure of the casting is that it doesn’t ascribe to any notional literalism but reflects the diversity of the audience watching. Why doesn’t this happen more often?
This is a Crucible on human scale. How we poor, forked animals twist and turn to contain the huge emotions of grief, love, desire, greed. How we throw up defences of god, community, morals against our own selves. Even if, as John Proctor rages ‘God is Dead’, at the very end faced with choice of life without truth and death with it, he cannot choose to live in an amoral universe. The commandments, stumbled over by Elizabeth and John, are still rules to live by, wherever they come from.
I am glad that this was my first experience of the play. This is a version about what it means to be human; how terrible we are, how great. And yes this time I watched to the very end.