The Crucible***** (Old Vic)

Posted: August 2, 2014 in Theatre

Richard Armitage in The Crucible at the Old VicThey say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but that is certainly not true for Arthur Miller in The Cut, London SE1 this year. In May, after seeing A View From the Bridge at the Young Vic, I wrote “if London theatre sees anything better than this production during 2014, it will have been a truly blessed year.” And so, a truly blessed year it is. The ground-breaking South African director, Yael Farber,  has taken Miller’s play, arguably the finest written in the 20th Century, and transformed it into an experience of extraordinary physicality and shuddering visceral power. Most of the actors must nurse bruises at the end of each performance, not to mention strains to their vocal chords. Atmospheric and slow-paced at times, Farber pays attention to every detail of the staging and every actor’s individual performance; it does not seem to concern her that the running length exceeds three and a half hours, but nor should it when her production is so compelling that no-one thinks about the time. Performing the play in the round is also a big bonus; The Crucible centres on a community whose members have turned against each other, so how effective it is to be made to feel at the heart of that community. Miller’s subject is the infamous 17th Century witch trials in Salem, Massachussetts, although there can be no doubt that, at the time of writing the play in the early 1950s, his mind was on the Communist “witch hunt” of the McCarthy era in America. This matters little nowadays, because the metaphors to be drawn from the play have become even stronger and more relevant to the modern age. Miller’s genius is in showing how ordinary human failings – adultery, greed, racism – can fuel the drive to mass hysteria and lead to persecution of the innocent in the name of religion. Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley) is vengeful following the end of a brief affair with the married John Proctor; Giles Corey (William Gaunt) is a litigious landowner, bent on protecting his own material interests; Tituba (Sarah Niles) is a Jamaican servant and a ready scapegoat. Natalie Gavin as the gullible and confused Mary Warren, Anna Madeley as the virtuous Elizabeth Proctor and Christopher Godwin as the zealous Judge Hathorne are all excellent and Adrian Schiller is outstanding as Reverend John Hale, the man who sets the witch hunt in motion, but is himself broken as he sees the scale of its unstoppable destruction. Richard Armitage is a star name from television and film, but he has done relatively little work on stage, so it is a giant leap for him to tackle one of the greatest roles in theatre; however, he is a towering John Proctor, tormented by guilt, torn between what the church and law tell him is right and what he himself knows to be right, this is an heroic Mr Everyman. Underlying it all is, of course, Miller’s wonderful writing, but the achievement of Farber and her faultless company is to have made what was already a masterpiece, immeasurably better.

Performance date: 1 August 2014

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