Writer: Arthur Miller
Director: John Dove
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
Witch-hunts, real and metaphorical, form the backdrop to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, which has been a staple of school textbooks and student drama groups for years. Every age seems to bring a new understanding to its story and characters, and as such it’s a truly welcome addition to the Lyceum’s 50th anniversary season.
In may ways, Miller’s text is probably the greatest strength of this production from director John Dove. Standing out from his mid-20th Century plays as the one that has most readily readable contemporary resonance, Miller expands the focus of his story beyond that a single individual or family – here it is the whole local society of Salem, as well as the religious community within which it is established, that comes under dramatic scrutiny. And we, just as much as they, are called to account for the “wheels within wheels, and fires within fires” that control and shape our world and our experience of it.
That power of the text is not easily undermined, even by some strangely weak casting. Here, perhaps fittingly for a story in which women are the focus (if still in the minority in terms of actual performers on stage), it is the female performances that have the most impact, in terms of range and depth.
For a story that is often characterised by the relationship between Proctor and Abigail Williams, this feels more like the story of Mary Warren (Kirsty Mackay) and Reverend Hale (Richard Conlon), whose performances stand out. Mackay in particular captures the honourable vulnerability of the Proctors’ maid, caught between doing her social duty and protecting the family who have given her employment. Conlon brings an intensity to Hale’s journey from defender of faith to advocate for self-preservation. These two, together, hold the attention and shape the resonances of Miller’s plot better than the other, textually more dominant figures.
Philip Cairns as John Proctor lacks the strength and charisma that is often relied upon to define his character’s decline, and as Reverend Parris, Greg Powrie is entirely without the intensity and stature that would have us believe he preaches brimstone and damnation. Like the underpowered Proctor, Meghan Tyler is far from the sly seductress we might be familiar with as Abigail Williams, to the extent that she almost disappears into the woodwork.
In contrast, Joanna Tope as the wronged Rebecca Nurse brings nuance and a quiet doomed pride to her cameo-like appearances, while Anne Odeke as Tituba likewise leaves an impact bigger than might be expected from the mere glimpses of her character. David Beams as wily Giles Corey relishes the comic edges to his character, but there is a genuine sense of loss at the news of his eventual downfall.
Michael Taylor’s open set is spare but versatile, with an evocative glimpse behind into the woods where the whole drama began, while Philip Pinsky’s stirring, almost cinematic scoring would feel better used if we were given more than just a few bars of it at the start and end of the acts.
Together, it is a production whose virtues are mixed (a bit like the accents, which might, uncharitably, be said to sound like they come from all American states, and none), but which broadly presents a powerful portrait of a society in turmoil, with which audiences will readily identify.
Runs until 19 March 2016 | Image: Drew Farrell