Inspired at least in part by the McCarthyism rife in America in the 1950s, Arthur Miller’s allegorical play of persecution and suspicion has strong political messages that echoed then as they might now. However, Yaël Farber strips The Crucible right back to its bare bones: the audience can draw political parallels as they please but her focus is securely on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 Massachusetts.
Onto Soutra Gilmour’s sparse and dingy set shuffle the 24-strong cast. The space – The Old Vic’s main stage transformed spectacularly into the round – fills with smoke, penetrated by shafts of light(exemplar of Tim Lutkin’s perfect gloomy, silhouette filled design that cast shadows up the walls and around the auditorium. There’s a thoroughly eerie feel, accentuated further by Richard Hammarton’s piercing horror-movie soundtrack. A Barbadian slave, Tituba (Nina Sarah Niles) circles the stage panting and waving a smoking pot around as if possessed and so the stage is set for this chilling production of The Crucible. Betty Parris (Marama Corlett), daughter of the frantic new Reverend (Michael Thomas), lies contorted on a bed frame where a coven of young women surround her, shouting and flailing. The frenzy is whipped up from the off and the atmosphere of terror is made palpable before anyone says a word.
There are many such moments throughout the epic – some may say overlong – performance, which comes in at just under four hours. Lengthy set changes allow for some beautiful movement sequences (choreographed by Imogen Knight) which stand out starkly against the hysteria of the storyline as a witch hunt tears through a small, religious town like a hurricane and the once tight-knit community of Salem is left in tatters, fearing the noose, each other and the unknown.
Abigail Williams (played with astonishing heartache and menace by Samantha Colley) is dismissed from the service of Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) after having sex with her husband, honest farmer John Proctor (Richard Armitage). John is plagued with guilt while Abigail is left reeling with a deep sense of betrayal. When she attempts to right the wrongs done to her by summoning spirits and drinking blood with the help of exotic and spiritual Tituba, Abigail opens a Pandora’s Box of judgement, accusation, religious fervour and fear
The performances are always at their strongest in the play’s muted, terror-stricken moments. Richard Armitage is stunning as the farmer whose moment of weakness forces him into a terrible quest for reconciliation with his wife. Physically masculine and strong, his quiet passion, pain and pent-up aggression is deeply moving but the sections which require rage are far less impressive as shouting causes his voice to strain and lose clarity. Samantha Colley as Abigail and Anna Madeley as Elizabeth Proctor are unforgettable as the strong women on different sides of a pointing finger. Madeley’s final scenes are absolutely heartbreaking. The ensemble of young women are another highlight, shaking limbs and heads of long hair to create sensational, if melodramatic, scenes of mass hysteria strong enough to forgive the strutting pantomime baddie performance of Jack Ellis as Witch Finder General Deputy Governor Danforth.
“You will witness some frightful wonders in this room” warns Reverend John Hale, and we certainly do. The production’s impressive physicality and tension is expertly maintained for the lengthy run time. Gilmour’s design and Farber’s direction craft The Crucible into a piece of surprising, understated beauty.
A hair-raising, slow-burning thriller that is not to be missed.