Old Vic Theatre
30 June 2014
The auditorium is thick with fiery smoke. You can smell the burnt hay and the lingering trace of ash with every breath. The stage is bare, though scattered with old worn chairs and with a pile of discarded farm boots ominously centre stage, pyre-like, or perhaps a memorial.
It is dark, almost Friday The Thirteenth dark, and a palpable sense of dread is inescapable. Shards of light shatter the gloom at irregular intervals. Flutters of ash descend sporadically from the ceiling. As it is theatre in the round, the discomfort and unease of the other patrons is crystal clear – and startling. More than anything else, as you look upon the grey curtains and panels which extend into the auditorium and snake around it, you are aware of a sense of sitting in judgment.
And in this, before even the first line is spoken, Yaël Farber’s glorious revival of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece (well, one of them) The Crucible, now in previews at The Old Vic, begins as it intends to continue: with a chilling, unnerving precision.
The Crucible is a long play (here it opens at 7.30 and closes at around 11.15 with a 20 minute interval) and in the wrong hands it can be dire indeed: melodramatic claptrap in the worst productions.
But Farber makes no mistakes in casting, design, pace, tone or intensity, with the result that the play throbs with vitality, is both visceral and sensuous and, even if you know the plot, plays out like the frightening psycho-drama thriller it is.
She adopts a thematic style for scene setting and changing which works spectacularly well. Silent sombre figures, all dressed in shades of brown or black or dirty white – there is nothing colourful about this world – move almost as if balletic, establishing grimness and creating the impression of a dance of death while tables, chairs, benches, water basins and so forth are set. None of this happens quickly; it’s almost unbearably funereal, but it creates and sustains mood triumphantly.
The opening image of Tituba chanting ambiguously over a pile of discarded footwear is powerful – and sets the acting space up as a crucible where strange deeds will be done. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble: that is underlying drive here. As the second Act commences, the silent progress of a single female holding a length of rope trailing behind her, speaks more eloquently of the deaths that have occurred since the first Act ended than any passage of dialogue or actual depiction of hanging could. It’s both radiant and appalling.
Soutra Gilmour’s set is magnificently adaptable; farmhouse, bedroom, church, courthouse, dungeon. It becomes what it needs to be effortlessly but with an ease and fluidity which underscores the time of the play’s setting and the clashing uncertainties of the lives of the characters. Tim Lutkin’s achingly evocative and haunting lighting deepens the set’s effectiveness and, together with Richard Hammarton’s impressive, eerie, fragile music, creates the perfect setting for the clash between good and evil, self-interest and peer pressure, revenge and dogged condescension.
The casting is spot on. There are 24 actors in the company; each is impeccable.
This play can fall away into titters of scorn if the young women who comprise Abigail’s pack are not able to be convincing, especially in the key scene where they all might, or might not, share a gestalt vision which rips Natalie Gavin’s broken Mary Warren from the sense of truth and seals the fate of John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse.
But there were no issues here. Uniformly, the young women were outstanding, their guttural, demonic, piercing screams and bodily eruptions are frighteningly done. Believable and bone-chilling. Samantha Colley is a sensual, provocative and ultimately vile and vicious Abigail. I have never seen a better one. She is the living definition of a woman scorned.
William Gaunt is truly marvellous as feisty, astonished Giles Corey and the warmth and depth he brings to the character ensures that the description of his slaughter is painful to endure. Ann Firbank is equally wonderful as the serene, accepting Rebecca Nurse; she shatters one’s soul with her casual remark about not having been offered breakfast as she is led off to execution. She watches everything that happens and her stillness and beatific countenance is a superb counterpoint to the histrionics of the more righteous members of the community.
Jack Ellis fulminates and rages with venomous religious zeal as the supercilious, repugnant Danforth, a man so sure of witchcraft he ignores all sense in order to eradicate it. It’s a wonderful part and Ellis gives it full throttle. The precision of his language and delivery is delicious and in the odd moments when uncertainty flashes across his features, the layers of political complexity inherent in his character are deftly drawn.
Adrian Schiller makes every moment count for Reverend Hale. Of the establishment, Hale has the greatest journey, moves position from uncertainty to conviction and back again – and the toll is clearly shown by Schiller. Another performance full of subtle joy.
I won’t list them all but every member of the cast does their bit, makes their mark – from Harry Attwell’s disgusting, sneering Putnam to Neil Salvage’s distressed and forlorn Francis Nurse. Christopher Godwin is pretension personified as Hathorne.
But the core of the play, its heart and sinewy fibre, lies with John and Elizabeth Proctor. And here, both performers bring a rich, deeply felt and shared intensity to their performances.
Anna Madeley is perfect as Elizabeth, her sense of wife and mother profound and all consuming. She bears the sorrow of what has eventuated between John and Abigail before the play commences with stoic duty – there is a marvellous moment when she pours water for John’s pre-dinner wash and where the time taken and the detachment employed in the task speak volumes of their simple lives and the slight distance that currently separates the couple.
The play’s greatest moment comes when Danforth interrogates Elizabeth about whether or not her husband was an adulterer. Not wanting to shame her husband, Elizabeth unexpectedly and uncharacteristically lies and says he was not adulterous with Abigail, not knowing that John has confessed and that her lie will condemn him. Madeley plays this scene remarkably, riven with pain and fear, not wanting to lie but wanting to save her man. Even knowing what happens could not disturb the tension Madeley produces here. And the outpouring of passion and fear which follows, followed by the final tranquil acceptance of the need for honest men to die rather than to be coerced into falsehood – it’s all expertly done. Masterful. Understated. Profoundly affecting.
Then there is Richard Armitage as John Proctor.
There are many ways to approach this character: tormented, defiant, intellectual, savage, uncomprehending – all are legitimate choices depending on the production. Armitage plays him as a simple farmer, who toils endlessly to provide for his family, who holds his faith important but not more important than the lives of his wife, children and friends. A man who has betrayed his own self for carnal pleasure with Abigail and thereby broken Elizabeth; a man who will never forgive himself.
Armitage is all muscle and fury, but there are moments of great, sincere tenderness and he handles the lyrical sections of the play with great beauty. He shouts a lot – but it is not misplaced or overdone; this is more the response of the simple bear of the man that his Proctor is, trapped, cornered and mistreated. A mesmerising and unique John Proctor. He is at his best dealing with Danforth’s pugnacious contempt and the duplicity of the Reverend Parris (a lovely Michael Thomas) but there is no denying the genuine feeling, the total comprehension he brings to his scenes of regret and loss with Madeley’s Elizabeth.
Indeed, this is the great achievement of Farber’s production. It is crystal clear in telling the story, unsparing in delivering the detail and romantic and sensuous in its overall feel.
A brilliant, sublime and terrifyingly effective rendering of Miller’s wonderful play.