The Crucible – Gielgud Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Arthur Miller

Director: Lyndsey Turner

Lyndsey Turner’s production of The Crucible for the National Theatre now transfers to the Gielgud Theatre. 70 years after Arthur Miller’s play was first performed, its intensity continues to grip audiences. Miller’s fictionalised dramatisation of the height of the Salem witch trials in the 1690s captures the relentless downward spiral of a beleaguered community in free fall.

The play works brilliantly as an allegory – famously Miller used it to critique the madness of McCarthyism. But it’s not a play that easily accommodates fresh interpretations. Turner makes every effort to shift the focus onto the young girls at the heart of the drama. Stacy Schiff’s programme essay addresses ‘the enigma of Salem’s afflicted girls and the community that fostered their fears’. The question of why these girls were subject to strange shared behaviours is, of course, a fascinating one. But it is not the question Miller is asking, so there is little in the text that can underpin this attempted change of emphasis.

The girls are brought forward in various ways. It is they who chorus-like give a rendering of Arthur Miller’s novelistic notes at the start of the performance, but this comes over as flat and even leaden. It is their child-like faces which stare out from the publicity poster and their strange singing which add some contribution to the uncanny atmosphere. But overall, Miller’s focus is not on the girls themselves.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that Arthur Miller presents them as ‘silly’ – the word repeated throughout the play. They are unreliable and untrustworthy, quick to change their testimony when it’s to their advantage. Abigail Williams is a particularly tricky character, one who probably couldn’t be created in today’s world. She is undoubtedly traumatised by having seen her parents slaughtered, but Miller focuses on her malicious manipulation of the situation in which she is now the ringleader.

Milly Alcock plays Abigail to Brian Gleeson’s John Proctor – the married farmer who had once been infatuated with her. The play demands a powerful chemistry between them, but this is sadly lacking in their performance. Abigail needs to be seductive, a contrast to Elizabeth, Proctor’s older, depressed wife. Late on Elizabeth confesses to her husband that part of the problem in their marriage is her lack of sexual confidence: ‘I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love would come to me’. Casting the elegantly beautiful Caitlin Fitzgerald as Elizabeth removes this dynamic.

It is the performances of the older characters that shine out. Tilly Tremayne as Rebecca Nurse is the soothing voice of reason, calm, dignified and exuding wisdom. Karl Johnson as the contentious Giles Corey nearly steals the show with his quirkily defiant wit. Zoë Aldrich is excellent as the imperious and interfering Ann Putnam.

There is something strange and not wholly effective about the suggestions of the historical period. Catherine Fay’s costumes, in particular the Little Women-like frocks of the girls, seem to place the play somewhere in the nineteenth century, but it’s hard to imagine why this should be. But Tingying Dong’s powerful sound design and the set by Es Devlin and the lights by Tim Lutkin are triumphs. Where Miller imagines a wholly realistic set, Devlin and Lutkin transform the stage into an evocative place of mist and darkness. So low is the lighting in the final two acts that we are constantly surprised when a character suddenly emerges without warning.

Runs until 2 September 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Uneven production

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