The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Directed by Yael Farber
Music by Richard Hammarton
Old Vic Theatre London
Friday 4th July 2014
Richard Armitage as John Proctor
Anna Madeley as Elizabeth Proctor
Michael Thomas as Reverend Parris
Adrian Schiller as Reverend Hale
Harry Atwell as Thomas Putnam
Rebecca Saire as Mrs Ann Putnam
William Gaunt as Giles Corey
Ann Firbank as Rebeccah Nurse
Jack Ellis as Deputy Governor Danforth
Christopher Godwin as Judge Hathorne
Marama Corlett as Betty Parrish
Sarah Niles as Tituba
Samantha Colley as Abigail Williams
Natalie Gavin as Mary Warren
The Crucible always had a whiff of GCSE set book about it … Arthur Miller, and strong parallels to be drawn between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the McCarthy Hollywood witch hunts of the early 1950s. 1692 is an exciting period of American history with a touch of witchcraft and sex. Miller researched it as a parallel to what was happening to his friends and colleagues in Hollywood, went to Salem to research it, and found the story had its own life too. It’s far more than a parallel. You can pull out so many interesting other themes. The fear of the female and “women’s magic.” The fear of what the establishment feel is “magic” (homeopathy? herbal remedies?) or alternative religion (meditation, yoga, tarot, Shamanic dance). Mass hysteria. How a bunch of accusations can snowball. Weighted trials. Prurient priests spying on naked girls. All fun. It’s a very teachable and discussable play.
Since the odious Education Secretary Michael Gove (allegedly) interfered to remove most modern and also most American work from the English Lit syllabus singlehanded and against all advice, I suppose it won’t have that set book attachment for long. Pity. It always worked with teenagers. I’d put it with The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men as an American work only an idiot could eradicate from school syllabuses. It’s a few years since I’ve seen it. Following on from A View From The Bridge (LINKED) just over the road at the Young Vic a few weeks ago, and All My Sons in the park, Miller is alive and well in London. In fact, with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Adrian Noble’s production on at the same time in Bath, and the Almeida running Our Town in the autumn, it’s prime time for 20th Century American Drama 101. If only all five had been running when I was studying it.
The 4th of July is a truly appropriate day to see it, just as 23rd April was appropriate for Shakespeare earlier this year. It’s another “unbooked” one. We were in London for two days for plays at The Globe tomorrow and the day after. We hadn’t decided to travel up on Friday afternoon until late on. We walked from Waterloo to the bus stop by the Old Vic, saw the signs, and wandered in, and said “I feel stupid asking, but I suppose there’s no chance at all of tickets for tonight …” And for the first time in years it was “well, yes, actually …”. And they were extremely good seats too in a full house. That’s happened at the RSC, and I suspect these theatres hold seats in reserve for cast, or high-level patrons and release them after lunch on the actual day.
Not many productions get twin five star reviews from Michael Billington in The Guardian and Charles Spencer in The Telegraph, either. Charles Spencer makes the point that in 2014, the play is just as much a parallel with extreme fundamentalists of today, prepared to slaughter in the name of God. I’d add the parallel fate of prisoners of conscience everywhere. Quentin Letts in the Mail thought it 45 minutes too long. While it runs to three and a half hours including the interval, the play is intrinsically “Shakespeare quality” as well as full Shakespeare length. The time sped by in such a gripping and vigorous production, and it ended with a well-earned instant standing ovation.
This season has the Old Vic in the round for a series. It’s funny how in the round has invaded proscenium theatres recently. Salisbury Playhouse, Trafalgar Studios are doing it too. Salisbury, bizarrely, is doing it for Rattigan. When a proscenium theatre gets converted, it’s usually best to be on the old auditorium side. Here the conversion is so thorough that it doesn’t matter. They even added much needed extra loos in what used to be the vast, deep stage, and walking in, the theatre space is much narrower than before to accommodate the side seating. This was no mere nod to working in the round either. The play really was worked for the tight space and for the multiple entrances, with a subtle lighting plot. I always watch actors in the round to see how naturally they include the whole audience, and this was great direction and blocking.
John Proctor & Abigail
The costumes were Brechtian homespun generic peasant, plus black for the reverends and judges. It is hard to tie any of it specifically to a time and place, but it looked right. I noticed when Reverend Hale arrived at the Proctor’s house in Act Two, how Elizabeth Proctor hastened to cover her hair. The women normally had their hair covered with scarves in public … true for the era, but another fundamentalist parallel. The loose pyjamas John Proctor had in the last act, when he was a prisoner, had a touch of Guantanamo Bay in the shape (though not the colour … that reference has been truly overdone in recent years).
The accent of the Salem farmers and servants was Yorkshire-lite. That’s way better than English actors just missing out on American, and in 1692 Massachusetts, I’d assume English regional accents were about standard (the east and rural south would have been more historically accurate given the place names the settlers chose in New England: Boston, Cambridge, Andover). The accents all felt just right though. Deputy Governor Danforth was fierce RP. Richard Armitage, in the lead role as John Proctor, proved again that film stars (Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit trilogy) are stars for good reason. He was totally commanding in the role, and unlike the critics in the papers, I liked his voice. So did the audience judging by the acclaim on his final individual bows. Also, looking through Google Images to illustrate this, there are few pictures of anyone else.
The children: Abigail top centre, Mary Warren top right
Looking through the programme, it was surprising to see how many of the cast were making their Old Vic debut. Samantha Colley as the self-possessed Queen Bitch, Abigail, and Natalie Gavin as the trembling, terrified Mary Warren both gave first-rate performances. So much so that I expected their CV notes to be laden with RSC, NT and Globe productions. Not at all. First major London theatre roles. The girls worked together as a group, echoing each other in the third courtroom act. This was always a theatre workshop piece for young actors, but here it was done so well by all of them.
Actors we had seen before included Jack Ellis, as a terrifying Deputy Governor Danforth, and Christopher Godwin as the most forbidding, looking down his nose judge. His eyes poured contempt, accusation and disbelief on everyone he deigned to look at, and his background acting was spellbinding as Jack Ellis held forth, embracing the audience in the round in his edicts that no one might speak, or give any clue to the accused. The scene where Elizabeth comes on and is questioned while Abigail and John have their backs turned to her is in any case one of Miller’s finest scenes.
L to R: Reverend Parris, Puttnam. John Proctor, Elizabeth
William Gaunt was a wonderful Giles Corey, the aging and litigious farmer who inadvertently gets his wife accused for the obviously witchy-woman crime of “reading books a lot.” The pious Puttnams (Harry Atwell and Rebecca Saire) looked and sounded physically perfect, just as if they’d arrived on your doorstep during your Sunday morning lie-in, clutching “Watchtower.”
Adrian Schiller as the Reverend Hale has the biggest change in character in the play, from convinced witch-hunter to realization of the enormity of what they have done. Another transfixing performance. Somewhat later, the smarmy Reverend Parris, played by Michael Thomas, comes round too. I noted that as these characters left the accuser side, they lost their shoes and were barefoot, presumably in penitence. A View From The Bridge was barefoot too.
The serious critics were both right. It’s an unquestionable five star production, and holds the level in every aspect. The best thing we have seen at the Old Vic since Kevin Spacey’s Richard III too.
A good extract from Arthur Miller, as well as an essay on Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby, Professor of American Studies at East Anglia, who is the leading writer on Miller.
MORE ARTHUR MILLER ON THS BLOG: