The Crucible @ National Theatre

Salem Massachusetts, 1692. As the expository voices of the children tell us …

The Crucible is about a time in American history where the forces of justice bent to the crying plea of mass hysteria, executing innocents under the guise that they were witches. Except, this is not confined to the late 17th century. Arthur Miller, when writing the 1953 play, lived in a country where suspicion draped the land, with the era of McCarthyism stringing up those labelled as undesirables, dangerous to the ethos of America itself. It is where we glean the term ‘witch-hunt’, used, and widely misused today, in the era of supposed ‘cancel culture’ and media pile ons. But director Lyndsey Turner does not attempt to rework the play, and instead allows the work to showcase itself as still as relevant as ever 70 years later.

The set is immediately striking, with Es Devlin’s use of an impressive curtain of rain that drapes the stage; It parts, and the play begins. In contrast to the waterfall-like current of the opening, the rest of the set is surprisingly simple. This becomes useful for the slick transitions that puncture the play, keeping the rhythm going without dropping the tempo. The sparseness of the set also becomes particularly effective when used in tandem with lighting effects from designer Tim Lutkin. The girls, singing their choral death-chant, are lit from the back of the stage, hanging over parts of the play like ghosts, or sirens, calling the townspeople to their deaths. A chilling melody designed excellently by Tingying Dong and Paul Arditti, and composed by Caroline Shaw, kept me suitably tense throughout the near-three-hour runtime.

The Crucible set – Image Credit: Johan Persson

The sparse set kept the focus on the acting, which was of an excellent quality within the almost 30 strong cast. The girls, floundering and unsure at first, became screaming sources of terror, particularly within the courtroom scene. It is not difficult to understand why one would be duped by the convulsing and shrieking sounds emanating from their bodies. Their leader, Abby Williams played by Erin Doherty, was particularly excellent. Doherty convincingly fit the brief of the blindly vengeful seventeen-year-old, with a terrifying authority akin to that of a cult-leader. Sly, scheming, yet still understandable in her villainy, her affection lies with John Proctor, played by Brendan Cowell, who, after an uncertain start, mystified me in his closing speech, and his march to martyrdom. His equally brave wife, played by Eileen Walsh, is quieter in volume, but no less impressive in her strength of character. Reverend Hale (Fisayo Akinade), captures the development of wide- eyed do-gooder to jaded minister, pleading for Christians to lie and besmirch their name, to follow a legal system that has no interest in dispensing justice. I do, however, have to question some of the accent choices used in the work. Contextually, their accents should mostly be English (considering how many were immigrants to the ‘New World’), but they are American, and not the same location, with John Proctor holding a distinct New Jersey twang. This was a choice I found distracting, though not quite enough to take me out of the action of the play.

It takes a skilled director to prevent such a large ensemble play from feeling cluttered and chaotic, particularly in scenes where many are present on stage at once. Turner achieves this, with the positioning of actors for larger scenes being both visually striking, and befitting the action within the play. There were however some questions raised for me of how much trust lied with the audience. With the choice to have the exposition both at the start and the end of the play (present in the body of the play-text as unspoken material), there is the feeling that Turner wants to articulate what you should feel and when. You should be tense, because, as the prologue says, ‘The Salem tragedy is about to begin’. And while the close is tragic, there is some small justice as ‘Abigail later turns up as a prostitute near Boston’. I wonder what the effect would have been without those spoken words, particularly at the end, without the reminder that there is still some sense of universal justice, particularly one that hinges itself on the punitive nature of women’s sexuality.

Fisayo Akinade in The Crucible – Image Credit: Johan Persson

The references to race provided in the play-text are still largely present in the adaption. Tituba is explicitly from the West Indies and is accused of witching the children with her ‘Barbados songs’. Turner’s adaptation keeps the Black woman as a slave, but casts actors belonging to global majorities in the main cast and in the ensemble. I have not yet settled with my thoughts on this, and I wonder whether it is possible to truly achieve ‘race-blind’ casting in plays that make multiple racist and xenophobic statements. I was also left wondering at some of the costuming choices: a mix of the Dolly style smocks for the girls, nondescript shirts and trousers for the working men, and trench coats for the judges. Much like the accents, rather than aiming for accuracy of period, it shifted into a more generic style.

In The Crucible, the is no way to come out of the courtroom an innocent person. Those on the stand are guilty until you are proven innocent, but there is no method the accused can use to prove themselves as innocent. Such is the chilling paradox of the damned. Revived time and time again, as recently as 2014 for The Old Vic, The Crucible remains ever popular, and consistently relevant. The danger of mass hysteria is everlasting, perhaps due to the nature of humanity itself.


The Crucible runs at National Theatre, London, until November 5

SUMMARY

Revived time and time again, ‘The Crucible’ remains ever popular, and consistently relevant. In her striking adaptation, Lyndsey Turner presents the chilling paradox of the damned, reminding us of the danger of mass hysteria and corrupt justice.

OUT OF 100

Script
70 %
Story
80 %
Acting
80 %
Characters
70 %
Directing
75 %
Costume
65 %
Soundtrack
70 %
Production Design
70 %
For the Culture
50 %
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