‘Bighorn sheep exhibit agonistic behavior: two competitors walk away from each other and then turn to face each other before jumping and lunging into headbutts.’ Writing about Caroline Steinbeis’s production of The Crucible, it seems about as apt of me to refer to nature documentary as it would be to go off and research exactly how period dress would have been in the 1690s. It’s interesting how often in conversation of Arthur Miller’s play its context has come up – ‘it’s an allegory for McCarthyism’, ‘it’s sixty years old’, et cetera. It’s always very clear where the script comes from. And this production makes a mess of that.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible unfolds as a series of butting heads, each growing steadily more exhausted. Collision after collision wears debate down and the body count mounts and the brittle society of mid-colonial America succumbs to its cultural neuroses. The frame is set up pretty quickly, the narrative of the play is that of rapid and massive decay. It’s a mess. Max Jones’s design makes a mess of a collision for the production’s aesthetic. Nuevo-lithic stakes as grave-markers and a gigantic headstone-ish erection cut through with a hollow cross jut into the main hall of the Exchange. The central round is a shallow dish, grimed with what looks like ash, as if something there had been burnt to death. The woman characters almost exclusively wear puritanesque modesty dresses, and the men are all modern, with a mix of American and British dress sense. Accents come from Ireland, Barbados, West England, and British courtrooms. Almost nothing of these elements is cohesive.
I’m not yet cynical enough to assume this is an accident. Actually I think it’s something potentially very clever. Rather than an accidental mess, perhaps we have a production embracing mess, confusing the context, thereby forcing an awareness of context. The design is messy, not clumsy, but apparent – the effect being some strange act in defiance of suspension of disbelief (added to by the fact I also saw this on the night of a captioned performance, which was ace, actually – can we have those all the time, please?) If we go down the road of wanting theatre to demand of us questions, this show does that pretty successfully. But what it didn’t do was give enough context for those questions. We can ask, why this design? Why this compression of past and contemporary, death and action? But I’m not sure who we’d be asking, or where we’d be asking from.
I can’t decide whether it was a result of this alienation of context or the age of the play (or both – let’s face it, it’s probably both) but there were parts which the audience found very amusing. There’s a fair amount of sass on the part of some of the characters, which went down well, but there were also a good deal of laughs at the more antiquated-seeming beliefs about witches. Most mentions of flight were greeted with laughter, which is fair enough – people don’t fly – but something about how that belief was greeted indicated something of the detachment of this production from reality. Because there are people with we might laugh at – in religious communities – in America, and in Europe and Britain for that matter. There’s something universal in the manipulation and exploitation of fear for political or social gain. And rather than emphasise the pervasiveness of these techniques of manipulation in the modern day (which was certainly Miller’s bent) the messiness and the explosion out of context of this production made that an incredibly difficult connection to make.
You know what, I did enjoy this show. I thought it was bloody good. The cast, to a body, put in excellent performances. And it looked great. That I have my own grapples with the why of what it did doesn’t diminish it was a strong production. Towards the end of the show, as John Proctor’s lifeline reaches its last dying jerks, it begins to rain, and the dish of the stage floods, which is an interesting metaphor in the face of the messiness of the design. The water fails to wash anything clean – Proctor’s sin and his imagined guilt cannot be washed away, perhaps because if one is a fiction, then they both must be. Instead of cleansing, the water sits, offers none of the traditional redemption religion labours it with. The spiritual and personal epiphanies of Proctor’s acceptance of martyrdom are bound not in the metaphysical cleansing baptism, but in the physical tearing up of his confession, and his hanging. The conclusion of Abigail Williams’s deception.
Again, I think this visual metaphor of the water clangs a little oddly – its major function seems to be spectacular but redundant, self-consciously and ostentatiously having little significance in the face of the play’s action. The aesthetic was self-aware, but the direction worked more on the level of a straight adaptation. This dissonance meant we ended up with a production ultimately a little unsatisfying, with perhaps too detached a relationship with context to fit usefully into any discourse.