All that water that falls periodically in this production of The Crucible isn’t for the purposes of the ‘swimming test’, where women accused of being witches were bound up and tossed into an open body of water, and if they sank they were human but if they floated they were a witch. In theory, the accused would have a rope tied around their waist so they could be pulled back up after sinking. I’m still not entirely sure what the water in this show was meant to symbolise – take it away, and the show would be just as impactful and engaging.
That isn’t to say that this somewhat fictionalised account of the Salem Witch Trials doesn’t have moments that leave the audience (figuratively) scratching their heads and thinking, “Really?” An audible “oh, for goodness sake” was heard from a fellow theatregoer at the performance I attended, as yet another ridiculous and incriminating accusation was made by someone against someone else, and it would be a surprise if very many people left the theatre believing justice had been fairly administered.
There’s a reason why certain shows are revived more often than others – the popular ones, on the whole, are pretty good. One doesn’t, of course, ‘enjoy’ The Crucible, as there’s nothing pleasant about a literal witch hunt, though it’s still possible to appreciate the stagecraft and the nearly three-hour running time feeling considerably shorter on account of the different elements of this production that successfully come together and result in a worthwhile theatrical experience.
Some of Caroline Shaw’s musical compositions are eerie, and others wouldn’t be out of place in church, which is just as well given the number of times God – and the Devil – are name-dropped in the dialogue. It’s difficult not to feel some degree of empathy for the Reverend John Hale (Fisayo Akinade), whose conscience results in various pushbacks against court proceedings until he eventually has no choice but to walk away altogether. Milly Alcock’s Abigail Williams is sufficiently terrifying as the teenager who goes into a frenzy of some kind whilst being questioned in court, which in turn sends the other girl witnesses into a state of panic, and pandemonium ensues.
Nia Towle’s Mary Warren, meanwhile, is a dissenting voice, though her vulnerability becomes increasingly apparent. Her journey is a good example of warped justice in a courthouse that has to be seen to be doing the ‘right’ thing irrespective of whether the punishment really fits the crime. As ever, at the centre of it all stands John Proctor (Brian Glesson), something of an archetypal protagonist, the man who pillars in the community like Giles Corey (an amusing and authoritative Karl Johnson) turn to when all seems lost.
Set in 1692 in Massachusetts (though Catherine Fay’s costumes seem to go for anything pre-World War Two), there are various accents, a subtle reminder that this is a relatively recently settled immigrant community. It’s a frustrating show to watch at times, but it seemed to me that this was what the production was going for – a depiction of an intricately complicated scenario in which all sorts of insinuations and assumptions are made, with a court that believes what it wants to believe: when Danforth dismisses someone who has attempted to interject, it’s never entirely clear whether he’s doing so because the witness being questioned must be allowed to finish giving evidence, or because he simply isn’t interested in what the other person is trying to say.
Es Devlin’s set design is functional, and not over-cluttered, providing the feel of a makeshift courthouse hastily arranged. There’s just the right amount of set, which is more than can be said for the some of the underscores that permeate throughout – and what was that humming at the end all about? There’s an incredibly detailed script – Raphael Bushay’s Ezekiel Cheever even mentions the plight of livestock thanks to sheer number of farmers in custody – and this production of The Crucible is well worth seeing, even if it’s a play you know as well as John Proctor knows his own name.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The National Theatre’s acclaimed new production of The Crucible transfers to the West End this June for a strictly limited season, featuring Milly Alcock (House of the Dragon) as Abigail Williams, Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) as Elizabeth Proctor, and Brian Gleeson (Bad Sisters) as John Proctor.
Olivier Award-winner Lyndsey Turner directs this electrifying new production with set design by Es Devlin in a ‘magnificent restaging’ (The Telegraph) of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, a gripping parable of power and its abuse.
A witch hunt is beginning in Salem…
Raised to be seen but not heard, a group of young women suddenly find their words have a terrible power. As a climate of fear spreads through/ the community, private vendettas fuel public accusations and soon the truth itself is on trial.
Gielgud Theatre, London
7 Jun 2023 – 2 Sep 2023
2 hours 50 minutes (incl. interval)