This season sees Arthur Miller’s celebrated drama of social paranoia reinterpreted by the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Tracing the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, The Crucible is an allegorical protest and social commentary reflecting anxieties of the 1950s and beyond.
Abigail Williams is a girl who has been sexually awakened and rejected by her employer, John Proctor. When Williams and her friends are accused of practicing satanic crafts, Proctor is tangled in a dark web of accusation, sin and social cleansing. Soon his wife and dozens of townsfolk become embroiled through Williams’ vindictive manipulations, forcing Proctor make his own, ultimate sacrifice.
As The Crucible is a core text for English and Drama curriculums, schools and colleges will undoubtedly welcome an innovative and inspirational production as an aid to teaching and learning. The West Yorkshire Playhouse have applied their experience in cutting-edge stage presentation and inventive direction to bring a version of The Crucible to the Quarry Theatre which is both authentic yet contemporarily accessible to a modern audience.
James Bringing directs with all the recognisable flair and vibrancy exhibited in Sweeney Todd (see review here). The use of space is inventive and constantly dynamic, effortlessly evoking locations with subtle blocking techniques. A continued collaboration with production designer Colin Richmond provides flourishes of visual brilliance, including a backlit vista with haunting spectres and a two-story platform which transforms Proctor’s home to his own set of ghoulish gallows. An accentual theme is the prevalence of late Seventies functionalism; orange plastic chairs, grubby strip lights and greasy gas ovens are suitably anachronistic and bring an historical paranoia into a contemporary forefront. It is an uncanny valley of piebald architecture which is foreign, yet familiar and ultimately unsettling.
Modern political overtones are clearly drawn throughout the drama. The courtroom sequence parallels America’s McCarthy trials with the simple use of an imposing microphone for interrogation. Today, the Communist witch hunt of 1950’s America is comparable to the fearmongering War on Terror. Danforth iterates, “a person is either with the court or must be counted against it,” foreshadowing post-911 military counteractions under the Bush administration. Even down to petty blame culture within business, or victimization in the playground, the themes of The Crucible are potent, contemporary and empathetic. The action of vengeance from a society or group which feels threatened is an act which blots human history in its entirety; it is this concern that makes the play one of the greatest allegorical stories of the century.
A product of the 1950s, Miller’s otherwise superlative script now feels overwritten with a cyclical repetition that is occasionally wearing. Indeed, the tenacious attitudes of the time are reinforced by continued debate and indoctrinated recitation, but the story itself meanders for a good thirty minutes before really catching fire. Occasionally there appears to be an abundance of ancillary characters, stood listening impassively to arguments, with a noticeable lack of involvement in proceedings; acceptable perhaps in a courtroom sequence but somewhat jarring in the less formal environment of a bedroom.
Performances are generally excellent, with powerful central performances from Kate Phillips as Abigail and Martin Marquez as Proctor. Susie Trayling is particularly engaging in a sympathetic realisation of Elizabeth Proctor. Though occasionally beset with some audibility problems – the set is cavernous and frequently artists have their backs to the audience – a good portion of the show is countered by actors yelling in pure rage. On a personal level the fury and anxiety feels truly tangible, though there is a likelihood that some audiences may tire of such bravura deliveries after three hours.
A very worthwhile achievement presented on a grand scale, The Crucible is a resounding attack on social injustice and community fearmongering. Rich, earthy and charged with fire and brimstone, the play has a unique texture evoking an indelible image. Arguably imperfect, yet wholly impressive, this is theatre which demands the attention of a new generation.