When director Peter Kelly chose it for the Studio Theatre’s April play, and rehearsals began, he saw a news clip of terrorists demanding that hostages recite sacred texts to determine their fates – something that happens in the play.
He chose to set it in the round, with 60 members of the audience literally “in” the action, and it added to the visceral terror of this story.
Set in Salem Massachusetts in 1692, it is a story of lust, revenge, mass hysteria and religious dogmatism, and it all starts with small-town politics and jealousies.
One old man is forever suing his neighbours over minor disagreements. The parson, a university graduate with a strong line in hellfire and damnation and a taste for the finer altar furniture, is generally unpopular.
When he catches his daughter and his orphaned niece frolicking in the forest with their friends, his first thought is of his own reputation. But before long talk of witchery has spread, and half the villagers are accused and sentenced.
The nightmarish scenario is brilliantly evoked in this intimate setting, as, over the next five months, any trust or faith is dispelled.
At the centre of the story are John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth and the scheming Abigail Williams, who has been thrown out of their house for adultery.
Hell hath no fury, and this scorned woman is literally calling down hell on her neighbours by whipping the teenaged girls into mystic frenzy.
There are some moving performances in this huge cast, notably from Ann Acton as Goody Nurse, Emily Prince as a wonderfully calm Elizabeth Proctor, Ellie Webber as Mary Warren, John Davis (hampered by an unfortunate wig) as John Proctor and Harvey Munnery as the tortured John Hale.
One of the disadvantages of seating the audience so close to the actors is that flaws show up. There were too many prompts for one of the leading actors, and neither Kevin Murdoch’s Rev Parris nor, particularly, Laura Melville’s Abigail Williams had any space for development, the one a neurotic ranter and the other an obviously scheming liar from their first moments on stage.
Miller’s play is a vital lesson in the importance of a wary view of mass movements, specially in these Twittering, Facebooking days.
The production is on until Saturday 18th April, and it is another example of the company’s versatility and talent at their Ashley Road theatre.