Time and again the parallels Miller intended between Salem in 1692 and Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts have returned in life, perhaps most recently in the reactionary nature of rhetoric post 9/11. However, Yaël Farber’s production at the Old Vic does not take its compass too close to magnets of modern social context.
It is primarily the story of Salem in 1692 and stronger for it. This is not a play of gestures and while there are hints at our modern world they are humble ones such as the costume of John Proctor, the everyman farmer, as pragmatic in his tilling of the land as he is in his god-fearing. Perhaps he is closer to the modern individual but he wouldn’t know and this play makes no such syncopation.
Regardless, Richard Armitage inhabits the protagonist of Proctor in a commanding performance without shouty over-imposition. Armitage is in sterling company: the cast is a tight, conscious unit. Made in the round, the audience are encapsulated in the players’ Salem and when the play’s many advocates come forward they are well watched. These are fast spinning wheels within wheels.
There are sturdy spokes in Natalie Gavin as Mary Warren and Anna Madeley as a steely but compassionate Elizabeth Proctor. Jack Ellis’ Deputy Governor Danforth and Adrian Schiller’s transitional Reverend John Hale captivatingly spar across the increasingly flimsy tapestries of church and state. These are inspired performances that achieve an impressive amount with such a well-known script.
The audience is kept on edge, as truth and circumstance are unpicked and eventually strewn across the stage, strewn across time, catharsis achieved. Sadly there is a weakness in Samantha Colley’s Abigail Williams: she is devoid of the coyness and ability to seduce reason, passionate but unconvincing in her deceit.
Miller is quoted in the programme as saying: ‘The job of the artist is to remind people of what they’ve chosen to forget.’ The Crucible certainly achieves that as a script but this production, like that of the Young Vic’s superb A View From the Bridge, has given a fresh voice to the New York playwright.
The crackle of the wildfire of superstition is ever present, surrounding the audience, the arbitrary covering of the ornately decorated theatre adds to the sense of losing the path in a moral darkness. This is epitomised by Ellis’ Danforth: so assured in his zealous mission as to create a Kafkaesque, predatory law, drawing fate like an Escher image on the cast.
This illumination of hopelessness is Farber’s greatest achievement and ties a superbly acted play to a script that is as important now as it ever was. There is no fade at the climax and the pace keeps the drama breathing ever quicker. Ignorance has never looked so powerful and in the weighting of quandary few productions will achieve such nervous balance. This is a great production that leaves its audience in the Massachusetts woods long after the curtain.
The Crucible runs at the Old Vic until 13 September