The Crucible was written as a direct rebuke from the playwright Arthur Miller to McCarthyism and the silencing of the American left. As such, its revival now is an interesting choice given the endless debates that play out in the world of theatre about cancel culture and silencing of dissenting voices criticising the liberal left worldview that dominates theatre (a world view which this reviewer definitely identifies herself as a – not always comfortable – part of).
So in going to see the current revival at the National Theatre is was interested to see how they would deal with this. There are accusations of McCarthyism coming from all sides of so many of our present debates and as such, this could have become yet another hot button in the culture wars.
The National has largely avoided this by delivering a straightforward classic rendition of the play. It offers no modern interpretation – allowing the audience to draw their own parallels and conclusions as they did on the play’s first airing in the 1950s.
For those unfamiliar with this classic, The Crucible is based on the true story of the Salem Witch trials and uses many of the historical actors as protagonists. It examines what happens when mass hysteria and accusation takes over not just a populace, but also the institutions that govern them. It was written as a rebuke to the work of Senator Joseph McCarthy who was a powerful senator using that power to accuse all those who challenged or disagreed with him of being Communists.
The Crucible is a powerful play. The build up to the hysteria and the killing of dozens of innocent people in what started as a childish prank, but became a deadly adult game of retribution, revenge, power play and politics is flawlessly written. In this faithful adaptation, the fantastic cast gives their all to ensure the helplessness of those trapped in seeing the horrors perpetrated in the name of beliefs they subscribe to. Their reactions – from the righteous truculence of John Proctor (Brendon Cowell) to the fervour of his chief persecutor Judge Hawthorne (Henry Everett).
The most interesting characters, for me, in the Crucible are those who change their minds. Here we see the journey of Rev Hale (I saw the understudy Nathan Amzi play this role with subtlety and gusto – a tough combination to pull off) from chief witchfinder to tortured soul. And the fear, courage and capitulation of Mary Warren (Rachelle Diedericks) shows the very human side of what it feels like to be on either side of a mob.
The set and staging of this piece is spare but superb – bringing to mind a painting by Caravaggio. Where the light hits, it brings sublime context in the overall darkness. Those lit up are either exposed or imbued with a sense of godliness. It is up to us to decide which. The curtain of rain that delineates the acts give space to wash away the sins (and sets) of the previous scene, but like the water, these linger.
This is a wholly faithful adaptation and as such, the judgement in reviewing it is not on the writing as much as how that writing is set and delivered in context. As such this was a subtle production in an in-your-face world. And for me, all the stronger for it.