Writer: Arthur Miller
Director: Tom Morris
Reviewer: Chris Oldham
Written in 1953 when McCarthyism was in full force, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was a reflection of what was going on in Washington at the time. Rather than address it outright, however, Miller transfers present day events back to the town of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, where a series of witch hunts tore the God-fearing community to pieces.
Revived by Bristol Old Vic to celebrate the playwright’s 100th birthday, the story begins with two young girls having been struck down with sickness and delirium following an outing to the woods one night with friends. The people of Salem begin to suspect that witchcraft is to blame and soon no one is safe from the escalating fear and paranoia. When Reverend John Hale (Daniel Weyman) arrives to seek out the truth, local farmer John Proctor (Dean Lennox Kelly) struggles to keep his family from being destroyed by the lies.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ daring set design is at the heart of the production. Tall, towering trees act as the backdrop, showcasing what a grand stage the Old Vic has at its disposal, with a portion of the audience actually seated up there on rows of tiered pews. The result is both the feel of the actors performing in the round, and of a jury presiding over us all. It’s not just those on stage that feel like they’re part of it, however – with some scenes lit by what seems like only the house lights, no one is given the chance to look away.
While parallels can be drawn with any era, not least the present day, what makes The Crucible such difficult viewing is the ease with which characters are accused, and presumed guilty, of harbouring the Devil simply because they can’t prove that they’re not, while it’s others’ stubborn faith in God that becomes the driving force to see them answer for their “crimes”.
Despite coming in at a little under three and a half hours (including an interval) the largely strong cast keeps the momentum going, just falling short in the fourth act when the energy starts to wane and those left on stage begin to look understandably tired. Lennox Kelly delivers a stand-out performance as the conflicted Proctor, torn between his rage against the injustice of it all and the pressure to confess, while as his wife Elizabeth, Neve McIntosh conveys a depth to their troubled marriage that goes beyond simply a husband’s wandering eye.
With so much material and so many characters, there is a tendency for some to get lost in the crowd. Rona Morison, however, delivers a chilling performance as Abigail, and David Hargreaves adds a dose of humour and humanity in the form of old Giles Corey.
With a little trimming of the original text to pick up the pace, the final, futile moments could come armed with even more of a punch. As it stands, the end result is still a potent, grim acceptance of the power that mob rule can yield.
Runs until 7th November 2015 | Image: Geraint Lewis