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The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Olivier Theatre

Being one of Arthur Miller’s best-made and most challenging plays, The Crucible is also one of his most frequently performed. I was going to say “revived,” but that would carry the implication that it had somehow been allowed to die since its completion in 1953. It had of course done no such thing, even though this full-blooded production at the National Theatre is the first major UK one for some years. The play was the third in an astoundingly fruitful period for the author in the postwar period, with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman preceding it, and A View From The Bridge coming after.

Brendan Cowell (John Proctor) in The Crucible at the National Theatre. Image Credit - Johan Persson
Brendan Cowell (John Proctor) in The Crucible at the National Theatre. Image Credit – Johan Persson.

Since the first two of those four plays addressed the state of the author’s newly peacetime nation with a clear and critical eye, his choice of focussing on the notorious witch trials three hundred years earlier in the Massachusetts village of Salem might have looked like a strange departure from immediate time and place.

It was of course nothing of the sort, coming at the time of rampant McCarthyism, named after the virulently anti-Communist senator at the heart of the so-called Red Scare. When the term witch-hunt was applied to his approach, and subsequently to all manner of villain-seeking tendencies, it was done so with direct reference back to those trials and purges of Salem. Hence Miller’s attack on religious or civic intolerance has its topicality re-asserted by almost every authoritarian or dogmatic excess you care to notice, up to and including Putin’s Russia which, let’s not forget, has had the enthusiastic support of the Orthodox Church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill.

Director Lyndsey Turner’s production opens with a massive, floor-to-ceiling wall of pouring rain, standing where the safety curtain had stood a little earlier. It could be a sin-purging torrent or else a prelude to some flood of Biblical proportions. And then offsets the story, with its accusations of witchcraft made by a group of girls, in order to hide their own excursions into the occult.

In response to the scarily powerful allegations made by Abigail Wiliams, a court is convened. A couple called the Proctors – John and Elizabeth – become entangled in its workings when Abigail, who has had an illicit affair with John, accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft in the hope that her conviction will get her out of the way, and make John become available.

On it rolls an implacable river of so-called justice, with the danger of accusation and retribution drifting everywhere like nasty spores on a wanton wind, and liable to deliver the kiss of death to whomever they land on. It is in effect a lawless state bound into a kind of moral paralysis. In judicial terms, it appears to be overseen by the pompous Deputy Governor Danforth, (masterfully played by Matthew Marsh) who turns out to place less credence on human witnesses the messages of guilt or complicity given out by a Poppet (a soft doll), with a needle stuck through its middle. Concepts of fairness and rationale become impotent strangers in this torn and, yes, possessed environment.

And what of the girls in their seemingly genuine outbreak of howling and gurning idiocy? Is it for real, or is it, to borrow from Hamlet, an antic disposition? And at the end of the day, are the so-called grown-ups in the room aping these creatures, knowingly or otherwise. We are in a hysteriocracy, no less. The only way out for us is through the rain that comes back down in thick sheets. No doubting its function now. It’s washing everything clean – clerks, clerics, hysterics – the lot of them, and not a moment too soon.

Director Lyndsey Turner makes the three hours of morality flawed – and floored – by madness fly by. Sometimes you’re looking on at a flock of phantoms, other times at a bunch of fearsome raptors. In her spare, song-assisted production, she draws some tremendous performances, not least from Erin Doherty as Abigail Williams, the girl in the middle of it all, and Brendan Cowell as John Proctor, stretched on the rack of his own conscience.

Just over thirty years ago, I did meet Arthur Miller. I was working for The Times at the time. He was in London for the premiere of his new play, The Ride Down Mount Morgan. At some point, I asked what his favourite (own) play was. There were two. I think one of them was All My Sons. The other, definitely, was The Crucible. I think he’d reckon the National had just done it proud.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Speak of the devil and he appears.
A witch hunt is beginning in Salem.

Raised to be seen and 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.

Arthur Miller’s gripping parable of power and its abuse returns in an urgent new staging by director Lyndsey Turner (Under Milk Wood, Top Girls).

The Crucible
by Arthur Miller
From 14 September to 5 November 2022

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  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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