Theatre Review – The Crucible starring Ben Whishaw (Broadway, New York)
My trip to New York was arranged around certain theatre productions and one of those on my must-see list during my time there was this new production of Arthur Miller’s classic play.
There were many reasons I had to see it. Not only was it directed by Ivo Van Hove (whose excellent A View From The Bridge recently ended a Broadway run after transferring from London’s Young Vic), but the cast also contained some exciting names – Sophie Okonedo (currently excelling in BBC’s Undercover), Academy Award nominated Saoirse Ronan making her stage debut and then of course Ben Whishaw. He is one of my favourite actors on stage and screen and his casting as John Proctor was somewhat of a surprise, being very much off-type from the much more physical men who usually inhabit the role (such as Richard Armitage in 2014’s Old Vic production). I was very curious to see what his casting would bring to the character and therefore the play as a whole.
I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the production. Van Hove’s chosen setting is within a school room – school desks and chairs, strip light blocks on the ceiling, blackboard covering almost the entire length of the back wall. Although disliked by some and although the setting didn’t evoke the same eeriness as the Old Vic production, I thought the staging worked well, symbolising a space that usually serves a much more everyday purpose – as a place of truth and learning for the young. It seemed apt for a play in which blindness of the truth causes so much destruction and which can teach today’s society as valuable a lesson as its original 50’s audience.
Miller’s play is always a powerful experience, as the villagers of Salem become afraid of one another, casting accusations and assumptions about those around them. Written in 1953 as an analogy to the sweeping fear of Communists and anyone possibly associated with them in America, it’s as relevant today as it was then. The growing suspicion and hysteria about the supposed witches of The Crucible could just as easily be any group in society who are viewed with fear and mistrust by those around them, meaning the power of Miller’s writing is able to shine through to any audience.
Van Hove, together with the atmospheric lighting of Jan Versweyveld and Philip Glass’s powerful and eerie score has created a production of this play that captures the terrifying ability for a situation to spiral out of control with terrible consequences. I particularly liked Glass’s pulsing score, which became like an ever present heartbeat in the background, adding to and indeed increasing the tension of the scenes unfolding. I did however find the occasional dropping of the curtain to punctuate scenes a bit jarring, taking my mind out of the play for longer than I’d like.
The cast is also very good. I did have to adjust to the cast using a mix of accents (with English, American and Irish accents among the villagers), but this added to the sense of a diverse community in which there were those deemed very much to be outsiders; a theme which carried through the production.
John Proctor is indeed somewhat of an outsider. He and his wife live outside the town and he rarely attends church, something that has been noticed and judged by others. You have a sense of someone keeping himself private and at a distance. Whishaw is wonderful in this role. He may not have the physical presence which you associate with Proctor, but instead he is able to bring the more subtle, more introverted aspects of the character to the forefront. He is a quieter Proctor, clearly haunted by his past failings and trying to make amends to his wife. Sadly it is those failings, through his inappropriate affair with the young Abigail during his wife’s illness that acts as the catalyst for the events to come. Perhaps it is because I am more familiar with the play now, but I felt that it was much clearer in this production that Proctor had indeed had a relationship with Abigail and that this remains a torment and even a temptation for him.
Saoirse Ronan is a brilliant choice for Abigail. In her early scenes with Proctor you can see the seductive power she still has over him and through Ronan’s performance it could have been easy to forget the character is still a child were it not for the uniform she wears. She is also able to effortlessly move from the weak, scared young girl before the community, to the unnerving, unwavering, powerful controller of the schoolgirls. You have no trouble understanding why they would be afraid of her, so much so that they go along with the deception. As with Proctor, you have a sense of her as an outsider in Salem. Her fellow schoolgirl Mary Warren also becomes an outsider when she dares break from the others to speak the truth. I was particularly impressed by Tavi Gevinson as Mary. Her distress when pressured by Proctor to confess and fear of standing against Abigail, were conveyed very convincingly. The moments where you had the two girls sitting facing each other, Abigail staring her down, were unnerving.
Sophie Okonedo’s portrayal of Elizabeth Proctor is one I struggled with initially because of how emotionless she seems, but this is of course right for a woman dealing with her husband’s betrayal, creating a rather cold and uneasy relationship between them. It made her portrayal feel authentic and made your anger at the accusations she faces stronger. In the play’s later scenes she was brilliant and her final scenes with Whishaw, as each one, so physically damaged by their imprisonment (their entrances to the stage evoked gasps from the audience), finds a sense of peace and indeed a togetherness that they had clearly lost as a couple. It is a very still and quiet few moments between them, which I found quite moving.
Overall, this is an excellent production and the choice of Whishaw as Proctor made it different from others I’ve seen. He doesn’t yell, scream or career around the stage, but instead brings out the still, reflective man who, by the play’s conclusion, is able to make peace with his actions and his ultimate decision in the terrible choice between keeping his integrity or his life. It remains a haunting play, which resonates in a world still containing mistrust between various groups and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting New York.
The Crucible continues its run at the Walter Kerr Theatre (218, W. 48th St.) until 17th July 2016. For more information, visit its website.