Tuesday 11 October 2022

The Crucible - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Erin Doherty and cast of The Crucible

Arthur Miller's The Crucible was penned in 1953 as an allegory to Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s work is horrifically exquisite as his drama meticulously dissects the history of the Salem witch-hunts of the late seventeenth century. This stain on the history of the pre-United States saw a toxic confluence of church and government in which the word of children, accusing their elders of witchcraft, grew into an almost unstoppable untruth in the communities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Based on these allegations of sorcery, 19 adults were hanged, countless others imprisoned and it was not until some 20 years later that government compensation was awarded to the families of those executed or convicted. 

Miller proves himself to be not just a historian, but as this website has long recognised, a dramatist whose understanding of the human condition is virtually unmatched. Much like Shakespeare, he can offer an analysis of events that may well be hundreds of years old and give them a context that is not just timeless, but timely and chillingly relevant.

Lyndsey Turner directs a show that presents the subsidised National Theatre at its very best, with lavish production values. This is what Arts Council money should be spent on: brilliant (albeit vintage) writing; imaginative stagecraft and a luxuriously massive cast list.  Entering the auditorium Es Devlin’s stark, striking staging sets the scene with the Olivier’s magnificent thrust boxed in on three sides by a curtain of cascading water and for the thousand or so souls in the audience, there will be at least a thousand different interpretations as to what this deluge of a mise-en-scene suggests. My take on this shower-curtain is to see it as the most transient of barriers between us and history. It appears tangible but is in an instant, permeable – a powerful suggestion that there is in fact no difference between a terrible history and the world of today.

Brendan Cowell leads as John Proctor, a noble yet flawed citizen who resists the accusations of the children, calling it out for what it is. Proctor is a striking character, saintly in his principles and courage yet profoundly and fallibly human too. The detailed, complex crafting of his relationship with wife Elizabeth (Eileen Walsh) defines Miller’s writing genius.

Another gem of characterization is in Karl Johnson’s take on the curmudgeonly, upright, elderly Giles Corey, with Johnson winning our love for the defiance he displays in the face of the madness enveloping his community. Erin Doherty plays the young Abigail Williams, her excellent performance reminding us that evil actually lies not in the Devil, but in mankind. 

There isn’t a weak link in the entire cast. Rachelle Diedericks as Mary Warren has us rooting for her as she strives to swim against the tide of her peers. Nick Fletcher’s Reverend Parris defines the odious hypocrisy so often found in the clergy while Matthew Marsh as Deputy Governor Danforth, effectively the supreme head of the local judiciary is equally, marvellously, malignant in his role. Credit too to the remarkable Nathan Amzi who, in an understudy step-up so last minute that the National Theatre (disgracefully) failed to inform the audience of the cast change, played Reverend Hale so well that it was not until studying the programme later that one realised that there had been a cast change. Hale is a complex character, starting off as a “bad-guy” inquisitor who goes on to find redemption in the second act and Amzi commands our sympathies throughout.

Paul Arditti’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s ingenious lighting plots combine to make the sensory experience of the evening nothing less than immaculate.

Many of today’s writers would do well to study Miller’s work. There is not a sloppy sentence to be found in the text and amidst much modern mediocrity, it is a breath of cold, sobering air to be presented with such genius. McCarthyism and its accompanying mob-terror may have inspired Miller, but it is a tragedy of our times that his words are so relevant in today's era of polarising culture wars and internet-fuelled cancel culture. Much as it took immense moral courage for John Proctor to face his own destiny, so too can we see modern-day heroes bravely weathering the slings and arrows of outraged, vile opposition. 

The Crucible is unmissable theatre for everyone. 

Runs until 5th November and screening live via NT Live on Thursday 26 January2023
Photo credit: Johan Persson

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