Propelled by a powerful ensemble, John Dove’s The Crucible masterfully handles Miller’s gripping script, but dulls the creeping pertinence of the Salemite tragedy with a disappointingly traditionalist staging.
Summer 1692, and the petty revenge of wronged lover Abigail Williams proves to be the spark that lights the well-stoked fire of paranoia amongst the repressed townsfolk of Salem, Massachusetts, resulting in the famous witch-hunts that hanged over twenty people.
Undoubtedly, the most successful aspect of the Lyceum’s production is the uniformly excellent cast. A few to mention: Meghan Tyler creates an impressively humane antagonist of fiery troublemaker Abigail Williams; Richard Conlon as the impressionable Reverand Hale treads the path from rabid witch-hunter to disillusioned sinner with enthralling sensitivity; Mark McDonnell is an immutable presence in Act 2 as Judge Hawthorne, while Anne Odeke (Tituba), Kirsty Mackay (Mary Warren) and David Beames (Giles Corey) among others, play their smaller roles with affecting helplessness, reminding the audience of all the unintended victims of larger acts of aggression.
Of The Crucible‘s First Family, The Proctors, Irene Allan as Elizabeth is the more consistent, exuding heart-breaking strength of character (despite a distracting, un-placeable accent). As John Proctor, Philip Cairns is an imposing presence, marked as an outsider as much by his scruffy greatcoat as his laissez-faire attitude towards churchgoing. However, his puppy-dog good looks detract from the strength and sternness expected in John’s earlier scenes, and his chemistry with his discarded lover Abigail is sadly lacking. Cairns’ intensity builds in the second act, eventually gripping during his agonising final conversations with his wife, but as the centre around which Miller’s story unravels, Cairn’s Proctor is not quite the stalwart force-of-nature we expect.
Given such strong casting, and the major themes of crumbling hierarchies and social responsibility, we might have expected a more dynamic, contemporary staging. Miller’s tale of bubbling jealousy and gleeful lynching is as relevant in 2016’s atmosphere of political tit-for-tat and Twitter-bashing as its ever been (RT @AbiWill: I saw Elizabeth Proctor with the devil. #SalemSuspects). But although enhanced by Tim Mitchell’s ghostly lighting, Michael Taylor’s set design is disappointingly naturalistic, a continual reshuffling of tables and chairs (plus occasional jail-bars) and Dove’s minimal direction does little to emphasise the atmosphere of gathering horror.
It’s difficult to go very wrong with The Crucible, and Dove’s production expertly handles the emotional complexity of Miller’s script. However, the resolutely conventional staging prevents this solid production being as powerfully prescient as it could be.
The Crucible is on at the Royal Lyceum until 19th March 2016. Click here for tickets.