You don’t need me to introduce Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to you, gentle reader – if you do, where have you been all your life? Justifiably a contender for the best play of the 20th century, this 1953 allegory linking the Salem Witch Trials of 17th century Massachusetts with McCarthyism, where the Committee for Un-American Activities was trying to sniff out communists, is the stuff of legend. It’s powerful, it’s accurate, and it’s timeless; even more so than ever today. As I was watching it, I realised how seamlessly it fits into today’s politics; in a post-Brexit world, where Remoaners are blamed for a condition of the state’s own making. Yes, I know that’s political statement – but it’s a political play.
Director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin have taken a very bold staging decision. Heavy rain lashes down around the perimeter of the stage, from the moment the audience starts entering the auditorium. It’s a stunning image, which continues up until the play starts, then resumes for the interval and at other scene change moments. In years to come, this staging feat is what this production will be remembered for. However, even without the rain effect, this is still a superb production, with great staging, terrific performances, and a feeling of more relevance than ever before.
That’s why I question the decision to impose the rain on the production. The unfortunate theatregoers in the front row have to spend the entire performance (three hours including the interval) in rain ponchos. I can only assume they’re really uncomfortable, squeaky and splashy, probably sweaty, their programmes, coats, jumpers, bags etc getting soaked, and impossible to enjoy their interval Merlot, all in the cause of art. It also starts to smell a bit, as the play progresses. Personally I think putting the public through this special kind of hell comes under the heading of dissing the audience, one of my pet hates. My other problem with it is that it doesn’t even enhance our understanding of what the play’s all about. This is a play that’s riddled with substance in every line. But the rain effect is pure theatricality – style over substance – completely the reverse, imho, of what Miller intended. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of the rain!
And it’s a shame because every other aspect of this production is tremendous. The full Olivier stage is used to great effect, whether it’s overwhelming you with rows and rows of pews or recreating the court of law. The ensemble of young women who (apparently) see the devil at every angle are genuinely terrifying in their collective fervour, as transfixed in the presence of evil as you could possibly imagine. Their minutely choreographed mass hypnosis is extraordinary to witness.
All the performances are superb; perhaps the standouts are Brendan Cowell’s dignified, powerful and unbending John Proctor, Nick Fletcher’s vicious Rev Parris, Erin Doherty’s insolent and aggressive Abigail Williams, Matthew Marsh’s authoritarian Deputy Governor Danforth, and Karl Johnson’s plucky and brave Giles Corey. Eileen Walsh gives an excellent performance as the reserved Elizabeth Proctor, Fisayo Akinade is also excellent as the voice of reason Rev John Hale, and there’s great support from Tilly Tremayne as Rebecca Nurse, Alastair Parker as Thomas Putnam, Henry Everett as Judge Hawthorne and Nathan Amzi as Ezekiel Cheever.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect to the play – and this production – is its ability to stir up a sense of true injustice in the audience. As I was watching it, I was fuming at the way all the decent people were being sacrificed on the altar of downright lies, and duped by those too stupid to recognise the truth and by those who allowed themselves to be swayed by their own bias. If they come gunning for you, remember to be like Giles Corey and insist on more weight. It is immeasurably powerful. Powerful enough, fortunately, to survive the whim of a design gimmick and still come out with five stars!