THE first time the British theatregoing public saw Arthur Miller’s timeless play The Crucible was at Bristol Old Vic, and now, to mark the 100th anniversary of the playwright’s birth, it is re-staged where it all started.
Director Tom Morris says in the programme that the danger of staging the play is that we might “see it as a portrait of a deluded community marooned in the follies of the past.”
Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to the then-current McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, when Reds were suspected under every Bed and hysterical paranoia swept the States. His point, and Morris’s, is that humans don’t change in their responses. The reaction to Jeremy Corbyn has been a recent and powerful reminder that fear is a powerful panic feeder, and ignorance fuels fear.
Set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, it’s the story of how a selfish and vengeful teenage girl works her friends into a lather of mystical imagination which convinces the authorities and sweeps reputations and lives in its wake. Probably Miller’s most frequently performed play, the power of its message does not diminish.
At Bristol part of the audience sits on stage in Shaker-style curved pews, close to the action, which is played in the round in John Proctor’s farmhouse, the church-turned-court of Salem, and, briefly, outside the court. Mostly it is very effective, from the congregational shape singing and circling to the Proctors’ last goodbye, but the very last moments called to mind the Southern states and Strange Fruit rather than the starkness of New England – although the Salem witches were apparantly hanged from trees rather than gallows.
There are memorable performances, notably from Dean Lennox Kelly as John Proctor, the good man who has strayed and cannot forgive himself, and from Neve McIntosh as his wife, who fears her chilly insecurity has caused his downfall, from Rona Morison as the manipulative Abigail, and from Daniel Weyman as the tortured Rev Hale, a man who sees his faith wither under the arrogant self righteousness of governor Danforth.
Jeffrey Kissoon is cast as the brilliant but self-deluded Danforth, and his interpretation turns on one chilling moment as he touches the belly of the pregnant Elizabeth. It’s a fresh reading, but it is nothing like enough to make this authoritarian ruler into a convincing character.
The Crucible continues until 7th November.
Photographs by Geraint Lewis