Sometimes it can be a mistake to read other people’s reviews before you see a show yourself. The less-than-glowing comments that I’d seen about The Crucible online flashed before my eyes as I walked up the steps to The Royal Exchange on Wednesday night. I felt negative about it before it had even started, wishing I was at home ploughing through my to watch list on Netflix. But my decision to ignore the lure of a comfy sofa and several episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt turned out to be a good one. Because this production of The Crucible is as tense, gripping and unsettling as I’d hoped it would be when I first bought my ticket.
For the most part, it’s a stripped back production with no unnecessary bells or whistles. This allows Arthur Miller’s excellent script to come to the fore. (“And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes? I will not, I cannot!” Just amazing.) The cast are strong, with stand out performances from Tim Steed as conscience-stricken Rev John Hale, and Jonjo O’Neill as the doomed everyman hero John Proctor. O’Neill’s bear-like strength and potency onstage is thwarted in the court scene, when Proctor is forced to confess his adultery; the barefoot, broken figure of the final scene is a stark contrast. The last conversation between Proctor and his wife Elizabeth is genuinely moving, particularly as she recounts the death of their stubborn friend Giles. There are some moments of comedy however, from the verbal sparring between the villagers and Ria Zmitrowicz’s performance as the childish, contrary Mary Warren.
The set, like the rest of the production, is sparse. The action takes place on a grey, crucible-shaped stage – this literal rendering of the title shows off the Exchange’s theatre in the round style, and directly involves the audience in trial and judgement of the characters. The stage has a broken, crumbling centre that mimics ash, which proves to be more than a visual detail. When the finger points at John Proctor, water begins to bubble up under his feet through these cracks – it’s a dramatic effect for a dramatic moment, but from then on the stage is flooded with water and the cast are left sloshing around through a huge puddle. Fine for the legal officials, who wear wellies, but I couldn’t help wondering if the actors obliged to go barefoot are likely to get trench foot at some point during the run. If they haven’t got it already. Fire and water are major themes in The Crucible though – Biblical imagery of hellfire and washing away sin is cited frequently – so I can see the point in the stage lake. Even if it does get rather distracting.
Earlier, the storm which backgrounds John and Elizabeth Proctor’s tense discussion of events in Salem – complete with strobe lightning and the sound of torrential rain – brings a level of foreboding to the scene and ties into the water motif. Not all of the sound design is as effective however. The beginning and end of the first act is marked by a strange soundtrack comprised of booming bass notes and a man’s voice uttering random syllables – it sounds like the sound desk is having a seizure. The choice of costume design is also a bit of an eyebrow raiser, with the female characters uniformly clothed in typical Puritan dresses and the men in a curiously modern blend of suits, raincoats, trainers and denim.
What I really took away from this performance though was a feeling that The Crucible could have been written today. It may focus on a devoutly Christian society that is alien to most of us, but it is so relevant to 2015 for several reasons. Firstly, John Proctor represents the common man fighting against the establishment, trying to uphold his honour and defend his friends. The establishment, in contrast, is represented by pompous, rulebook-brandishing figures such as Deputy Governor Thomas Hanforth – it’s easy to draw comparisons with modern politics. Secondly, Abigail Williams and her friends stirring up accusations and paranoia amongst the people of Salem could easily be realised as a smear campaign on social media. (#Witchhunt, anyone?) Truth, lies, love and sex are timeless themes, but particularly relevant in our media-driven age.
The Crucible is on at The Royal Exchange until 24th October.