Review – The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Old Vic (2014)
It’s been a month since I saw The Crucible at the Old Vic and due to its sold out status and the fact the run was soon to end (last Saturday), I almost didn’t review it. However on hearing the news that it will be released on Digital Theatre and as it will be my last review of a live theatre production for a couple of months (due to breaking my foot), I thought it was time to give my thoughts on this classic play. Despite studying Arthur Miller at school, this year has brought my first opportunities to see his work on stage, first at the Young Vic for its stunning A View From A Bridge and now at the Old Vic for this new production of The Crucible.
Set in Salem, Massachusetts Bay, The Crucible shines a light on the Salam Witch Trials of 1692-1693. Written in 1953, Miller’s play is a partly fictional, dramatised tale of these terrible historical events, highlighting what can happen when rumour, suspicion and hysteria take hold of a community, turning people against each other with tragic circumstances. This of course made all the more apt when written at the time of intense suspicion and accusation in America – not of witches, but of the threat of Russian Communist spies.Winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 1953, it has become a classic and this production is certainly of a calibre to carry such a play and left me overwhelmed by its conclusion.
South African Director Yael Farber’s powerful production particularly benefits from the current configuration of the Old Vic stage. Playing such an intense story on a smaller stage, surrounded by the audience was an inspired decision. Its deeply atmospheric sparse staging by Soutra Gilmour, the effective use of light and shadow by Tim Lutkin, mist-covered entrances and terrifyingly eerie music score by Richard Hammarton, are all enhanced greatly by the almost claustrophobic atmosphere created by having faces gathered all around the stage. You certainly have a sense of a body of people gathered together to pass judgment on the accused and in the later court scenes the audience add an extra dimension to the production as a whole.
The entire cast are superb, combining to bring to life an incredibly powerful, emotional experience over the course of the play’s lengthly running time. I was particularly impressed by Samantha Colley as the intimidating Abigail, whose terrible lies after being spurned by John Proctor are what lights the fuse and maintains the tragic events through the threat she exerts over the other “possessed” girls. As a group the actresses portraying the Salam children are utterly fantastic. I found myself becoming deeply disturbed by their pack-like actions as they thrashed around and convulsed on stage, often speaking as one with such authenticity and effect that you start to understand how something so sinister could happen. The scene in which they turn on Mary Warren (played wonderfully by Natalie Gavin) is particularly hard to watch without feeling the need to try and do something to stop it. It’s certainly a sign of a convincing production to illicit such a response from me. Adrian Schiller is also very good as Rev. John Hale, whose experience in Salem changes his whole attitude by the end of the play and Anna Madeley is also strong as Mrs Proctor, whose relationship with her husband is such a key part of the story.
The highest amount of praise however is saved for Richard Armitage’s electrifying, raw performance as John Proctor. He is a decent man of principles, whose brief affair with Abigail has filled him with guilt and has such tragic consequences for the people of Salem. Armitage has an incredibly powerful presence on stage and you could not fail to be moved by his portrayal of Proctor, as he moves from moments of sorrow, to weakness, intense anger, rage and delicate emotional vulnerability. His relationship with Anna Madeley feels genuine and real and I was rather moved by the play’s conclusion. As Mark Strong did earlier in the year at the Young Vic, he commands the stage, leading a superb version of such a well known Miller play for a new generation of theatregoers.
As someone new to The Crucible what was also so apparent to me was the play’s incredible ability to be current despite its 17th century setting. As it did in 1950s America, in a world so at risk from religious fundamentalism and a distrust of those of other religions, you cannot fail to feel a chill watching such a powerful and disturbing story and see the shadows that are still mirrored today. I have no doubt over the years to come I’ll see future productions of Arthur Miller’s play. Time will tell if any have the power to match this one.
Although The Crucible’s run at the Old Vic has now come to an end, the play has been recorded by the brilliant team at Digital Theatre (I’ll be blogging about them later this week) and will be available to download (either to rent or buy) on their website some time in the future. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Keep an eye on Digital Theatre’s website for further news of its release: http://www.digitaltheatre.com