Review – The Crucible, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 26th October 2022

The CrucibleYou 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, ProctorI 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. Abigail and HaleIn 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.

The interrogatorsThat’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!

Proctor and Mary WarrenAnd 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.

Ensemble of young womenAll 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.

Giles CoreyPerhaps 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!

Production photos by Johan PerssonFive Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Rough for Theatre II and Endgame, The Old Vic, 29th February 2020

88183326_133168874749334_6195709823078629376_nA double-bill of Beckett plays is always going to be a challenge, but hopefully a good one. The current Old Vic production directed by Richard Jones comes with a terrific pedigree, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in one reasonably familiar play and another rarely performed piece. Does it measure up to those high expectations? Read on, gentle reader…

Clov and HammI admit, I’d never heard of Rough for Theatre, neither piece I or piece II – they were written in the late 1950s, in French, naturellement. Fragment deux, that opens this production, is a 25-minute snippet where two bureaucrats examine the life, worth, anxieties and achievements of a man, C, frozen in a window frame, ready to leap (presumably to his death). During the process we learn a little about this man, but we understand much more about the characters of the two office men. A (Daniel Radcliffe), clearly superior, with a natural, relaxed authority, simple clarity of thought and speech versus B (Alan Cumming), flustered, neurotic, insecure, longing to bask in the glory of being in the company of A.

Rough for Theatre IIMessrs Radcliffe and Cumming bring this two-hander to life as a sparklingly unsettling comedy, savage in its contempt for the fate of the man about to jump, but also revealing the strange professional relationship between the two observers. Much funnier than it had any right to be, this little play has the ability to make you laugh, cringe, and appreciate how much we clutch at straws to make life bearable. A terrific opener.

HammAfter the interval we returned for Beckett’s Endgame, or Fin-de-Partie in its original French, that stalemate end to a chess game where no one can make a meaningful move, and there’s certainly no chance of winning. Me to play, Hamm may gleefully announce, but then what? There he sits, blind, imperious, inconsequentially veering from the bland to the bullying, and all for nothing. He whistles for his servant, Clov, who attends in a flash, but is sarcastic, resentful and unhelpful, attempting to return some of the cruelty that had been handed out to him. Preserved but useless, Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, inhabit their dustbins in a corner of the stage, reminiscing about the good old days, with just an old dog biscuit to eat. You can take the chess analogy as far as you like; depending on your fondness for the game it might illuminate or obscure whatever meaning you feel Beckett has written into it.

ClovI’d never seen Endgame on stage before, but had only read it; and what feels like organised stasis on the page comes to vivid life in a way you couldn’t dream of in this stunning production. From the moment Daniel Radcliffe enters the stage and decides to open the curtains, it’s an amazing and spellbinding performance. He remembers he needs his ladder, hits himself for forgetting, then when he finally gets the ladder into place he climbs up it in a most extraordinary manner and, having opened the curtains, comes down in another, ridiculous and hilarious way; forgets the ladder, hits himself again, and so it goes on. It has the audience in hysterics. Throughout the play, Mr Radcliffe adopts a most uncomfortable, but riveting to watch, gait; bouncing, hobbling, sliding over every available surface. But much more than this, he invests Clov with a fascinating characterisation; sullen, bitter, frustrated, but alarmingly obedient and essentially impotent.

Nagg and NellAlan Cumming’s Hamm is a truly ghastly creation, sitting on his throne (a masterful piece of design work by Stewart Laing), his withered, dangly legs reflecting his loss of power. Marvellously smug, viciously cruel, he blathers on confidingly with observations of past life, confronting Clov with petty vindictiveness; in fact, it’s a superb portrayal of a grotesque man clinging on to the wreckage of life. His patronising treatment of his parents in the bin is riddled with sneering and malice, whilst they wait, innocently and pointlessly, for something to happen. The performances of Karl Johnson as Nagg and Jane Horrocks as Nell are a pure delight, as they blink their way out of the darkness in which they are kept, fondly holding onto distant memories of escapades on the tandem in the Ardennes, or rowing on Lake Como. It’s incredibly moving how they continue to look after each other even though their lives have now come to naught.

Hamm and ClovOne cavil – from Mrs Chrisparkle – Nell and Nagg’s dustbins could have done with being placed just a few inches higher on stage; someone’s big hair a few rows in front of her obscured her view of Ms Horrocks’ face throughout the play – which is a substantial and unfortunate element to miss in this production. However, with razor-sharp direction and pinpoint accurate performances, this double-bill converts two difficult-to-appreciate texts into two rivetingly funny and tragic pieces of theatrical magic. Two hours 15 minutes (minus the interval) of hanging on the edge of your seat for the next deliciously delivered line or piece of memorable comic business. We absolutely loved it.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

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