Writer: Arthur Miller
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Gripping and intensely powerful, Lyndsey Turner’s new production of The Crucible for the National Theatre is a breath-taking theatrical event that holds the audience in thrall for almost its entire three-hour running time. With Es Devlin turning the usually circular Olivier stage into an oblong that stretches far off into the distance, Turner’s production focuses on perspective, giving audiences a glimpse of contextual events that Arthur Miller only described and turning every scene into a ferocious interrogation.
Caught dancing in the woods outside Salem a group of girls and young women led by Abigail Williams seeks to deflect attention from their sinful behaviour by accusing their neighbours of consorting with the devil, and soon tens of local women are on trial for witchcraft. Rejected by the man she is infatuated with, Abigail also names John Proctor’s wife and as he seeks to clear her name, the deeply Puritan town closes ranks.
Turner’s production plays almost like a thriller with tension building within scenes and between them as a sense of paranoia and hysteria grows quite intensely across the play. Miller ensures that much of that actually happens off-stage and the audience never sees the inside of the courtroom or the daily business of the trials. Instead, all of the drama occurs within the increasingly accusatory conversations, and in Turner’s taut production, every single one begins with a slow rhythm that evolves into a kind of cross-examination of individual motives, beliefs and courage.
To aid the creation of atmosphere, Turner adds two devices; the first is a choral soundtrack of female singers, Abigail’s group, which emphasises key moments of tension and direction. Used sparingly their vocal is often unnerving, sinister even, and as their testimony and behaviour shapes the lives of others so does their song act like a siren call of damnation. Second, Turner employs a cinematic inset shot to depict decisive activity happening elsewhere while characters interact at the front of the stage, unspoken scenes that appear out of the darkness to further underline the power shift from the adults to the children.
And as The Crucible unfolds, Turner creates an edge-of-your-seat jeopardy, a very palpable sense of life and death hanging in the balance as the stakes get higher and characters lose control of themselves. The crucial scene in which Mary Warren tries to recant her original testimony is extraordinary and as the Judge hammers away at them, the shift from legal truth-seeking to an almost paranormal hysteria in which the girls shake and chant in unison is excellent, underscoring Miller’s points about the convincing ‘pretence’ of their possession.
While Brendan Cowell gets so much from his role as John Proctor, the only man applying rational thought, he underplays John’s reactions in the early part of the play. His farmer is not an overly emotional man and takes some time to come to an understanding of himself, but Cowell is too calm and accepting in moments where John should be inflamed, particularly when Elizabeth Proctor (Eileen Walsh) is arrested. Cowell is very good in the final scene as John must decide between bodily and spiritual sacrifice, but the performance needs a little more emotion before that, if only to believe that he could break a few Commandments in his dealings with Abigail.
Fisayo Akinade gives one of his best performances yet as the Reverend Hale, a quietly controlling figure who brings calm authority, initially with an almost evangelical fervour, that wavers across the piece as he understands the consequences of his actions. Karl Johnson is delightful as Giles Corey bringing a few moments of levity, while Rachelle Diedericks as Mary Warren and Erin Doherty as Abigail show the growing confidence of the young women as they enjoy manipulating events.
Turner’s vision of The Crucible is bleak but hugely rewarding, digging deep into the violent paranoia and creating a convincing blood lust dressed up as justice that grips Salem. And while Miller shows little of the townsfolk and their trials, this production puts their suffering centre stage.
Runs until 5 November 2022