From Bev Clark for North West End UK
A bold, original attempt at this classic, which ascends to a powerful ending.
The Crucible is one of the seminal and most popular plays of the mid 20th century. Miller’s chilling parable of mass hysteria parallels the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 against The McCarthyism of 1950s America, and it is still examined in school rooms, as well as being performed by amateurs and professionals.
It is a play which should feverishly bubble and burn, as it builds from what was a girlish prank, to a community that destroys itself from within with its frantic frenzy of accusations. It is a claustrophobic, intense ‘wailing’ of a play that can fall victim to overflowing and reaching boiling point too soon. The alchemy is in getting the temperature and consistency right as the plot thickens.
It is a bold director who takes on such a play and then twists it into a reimagined concept, when much of it is rooted in history. Eliot Kinnear, making his debut direction for Bebington ADS, has done just that with his alternative history of a 1940s Britain encased in a fascist regime, apparently still with king Edward VIII as its figurehead.
Influenced perhaps by The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle, we are given a subplot to this regime via back projections and voice-overs. There’s nothing wrong with reimagining an alternative setting but you need to ensure that the world of the play still works and is believable. Changing sets and costumes is not enough. A director can set themselves up for a fall if this ‘alternative’ lends nothing extra to the original text. It seemed the characters were not aware they were living in this fascist state, as take away the backscreen, the text remains the same.
Miller’s text is very precis. The dialogue is specific in its syntax. It reflects the way this community would have spoken in 1692 and there is no reason to believe people would still speak like that in 1940, whatever the regime. Here was perhaps the first stumbling block. If the villages/ citizens had all spoken with perhaps, west country or similar accents, it would lend itself to the phrasing, rhythm and vocabulary and indeed one character, Francis Nurse, did do that very successfully, but many other had no particular accent, some rather ‘RP’ which wasn’t convincing and many words like ‘poppet’ ‘Goody’ etc. may need to be replaced to make the dialogue in keeping with the 1940s.
I am always open to alternative concepts, keeping things relevant and fresh should be at the very heart of theatre and to that I take my hat off to Kinnear but I wasn’t totally convinced that this particular re-imagining gave me anything extra. I’m still unsure whether we were in England or in Massachusetts as an English Colony under this regime. All the ‘when’ was well observed. I felt the ‘where’ was lost.
The director and his cast made a good attempt in presenting this wordy, dramatic and lengthy play. This being the first night it was a little slow to establish itself but by Act 4 it had really reached a strong and powerful climax.
The production itself gave us some convincing sets and in particular, costumes – a great deal of effort had gone into sourcing unforms and the 1940s attire. This presented the period very well. In this regime, in the hierarchy at least, women were equal and could rise to positions of power – both Reverend Parris and Deputy-Governor Danforth played as female characters, yet the citizen-women could still have been stuck in the 17th century.
To begin with, Abigail needs to establish herself. She is not a central character, but she is central to the plot. It is all because of her ’mischief’ that dozens end up losing their lives. Her first meeting with Proctor didn’t give us a hint of the ‘heat ‘that has passed between them: a forbidden sexuality.
One of the questions at the very heart of this play – is Abigail a victim? For all her contriving and flirting she is a child ‘taken’ by an older pillar of the community. Proctor is a flawed man dragged down by his own inner guilt. This is his journey to redemption. The simmering tensions weren’t apparent enough as the changing seasons, noted on the backscreen, are never suggested in the character’s action. Details like the rubbing of cold hands, the wiping of a hot brow, help an audience not only see and hear but feel the characters’ experiences. Whilst the director had his own clear vision of the ‘big story’, the little human stories were somehow lost, although there were some excellent tender moments between Proctor and Elizabeth.
Some basic stagecraft needed some development: The blocking was problematic in places, always difficult with a large ensemble. Often actors were masking others, playing up stage or spending too long in profile. The pictures and tableaux need to be sharper and balanced and movement natural and with purpose, this wasn’t always the case.
Having said that there were some good performances: Jane Wing as the somewhat paranoid and power-hungry Rev Parris, gave an expressive and energetic performance, on occasions a little pitchy in the manic frustration. Ann Putman played with clarity by Julie Khayati, who also gave a totally different character in Sarah Good. Julie was a busy lady, as she was also responsible for the period costumes. Rev. Hale played by Adam Comer was commanding and well delivered vocally. (Not sure about the long hair for 1940s.) The young ladies who played Abigail (Grace Stranger) Mary (Megan Mcwha) Mercy (Liv Hanrahan) and Betty (Olivia Clarke) gave us some good variety of character and compelling reactions – the highlight being ‘the yellow bird’ in the courtroom, when the hysteria really explodes and Abigail shows her insolence and audacity.
As mentioned, Francis Nurse was well observed by Graham Smith. He really acted with the whole of his body and was totally engaged. A believable cameo from Maggie Green as Tituba and Amy Marshall as Herrick, a small part but had a strong presence and I would like to see her take on a larger role. Keith Hill had excellent projection as Hawthorne, Chris Nall-Evans as Corey and Roger Hesketh as Putman found some energy in their confrontation. Joan Mason was the solid and sensible Rebecca and Michael Webster as Cheever certainly looked austere and official. Caroline Kay as Danforth, the part actors always seem to want, had some authority as her voice tone is excellent, a few lost lines meant some of that authority was lost but I am sure this will improve as the week goes on. I understand many of the cast had to stand in or swap roles at short notice so all credit to them.
Proctor and his wife Elizabeth are at the centre of this piece, and it is the truth of their relationship which eventually gives us a satisfactory, albeit sad conclusion. Strong performances here from both Lee Crosbie and Helena Hill who really grew into their characters. There was an opportunity for a stronger physicality in both performances but verbally they were emotional and sincere. By the end we were left with a moving and poignant parting that was very powerful.
This production has promise and potential: with a little more tightening up and confidence in delivery, that can be achieved. I commend the ambition of the director for trying something new, it didn’t quite work for me but it’s a bold and original attempt at this classic play, which ascends to a dramatic ending.