by Lynn on October 20, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, England plays until, Nov. 5, 2022.

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Set by Es Devlin

Costumes by Catherine Fay

Lighting by Tim Lutkin

Sound designer (Content design)

Sound designer (Sustem design)

Composer/arranger, Caroline Shaw

Music director/arranger, Osnat Schmool

Cast: Zoë Aldrich

Nathan Amzi

Sophie Brown

Brendan Cowell

Rachelle Diedericks

Erin Doherty

Henry Everett

Nick Fletcher

Gracie McGonigal

Alastair Parker

Ami Tredrea

Eileen Walsh

An uneven cast and often static direction of a powerful play that ultimately rises above it all.

The Story. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as an allegory to the McCarthy era in the U. S. and the witch hunts to name names of those notable people who may be ‘communists.’ People in the theatre and film lost jobs when their fellows ‘named names’ and accused them of being communist.

The Crucible is set in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. The town is in turmoil because some young girls and women of the town seem to be in a trance, revealing they have seen the devil or witches. They accuse many of their fellow townsfolk of being evil, or the devil or witches and the religious people believe them and go on a rampage to condemn them.

One family in particular is targeted. John Proctor has strayed and slept with Abigail Williams, a young woman who worked for him and his wife Elizabeth at one time. Elizabeth knew about John’s transgression and has treated John coldly for the betrayal. Abigail seems to be the ring leader of the young women, their trances and their accusations. Eventually Elizabeth Proctor is accused of being a witch and John is also implicated as being named as seeing the devil.  There is a trial. Elizabeth would have to admit that she knew that John was unfaithful. He said to the court that Elizabeth would never lie, not even to save him. But she does. The play is gripping.

The Production. Es Devlin has designed the set on the huge Olivier stage. It’s a large raked square stage. The stage is set with rows of chairs facing upstage, as if in church. There is a square frame above the stage the same size as the stage below.

The production starts at 7:30 pm. At 7:20 pm the beams of the square above the stage are illuminated and a torrent of ‘rain’ water flows down on to the stage from above and continues until the play starts. Puddles form on the sides of the stage. I don’t get the sense that the audience in the front is affected. That would have spoiled the surprise that those in the front knew before hand they might get wet.

When the production begins, the rain stops, the cast arrives and sits in the seats as in church and sing a hymn. It’s beautiful. Reverend Samuel Paris begins his sermon. Two young girls at the back begin talking to each other during the sermon. The Reverend sees it, comes down from his pulpit and slaps one of the girls across the face. This is a tough, hard world.

When the chairs are being re-arranged for the next scene, young women come forward and set the time (1692) and recite Arthur Miller’s astonishing Prologue to his written play, some of which is: “The Salem tragedy, which is about to begin, developed from a paradox. Simply, it was this: for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space…” The Prologue is frightening and extraordinary.

This is the world of director Lyndsey Turner’s production. For some reason, each scene ends with a torrent of rain from the frame above. Perhaps it’s like a ritualistic cleansing, which actually doesn’t make sense. Or perhaps because it’s so dramatic, which seems a bit too theatrical. Surely the play should speak for itself. One is fascinated watching actors/crew apply towels to wipe the stage of the moisture. Much of Lyndsey Turner’s staging is static, even dull, but the interrogation of Elizabeth and John Proctor outside the courtroom is electrifying. As the interrogator, Judge Hathorne, Henry Everett is relentless and determined.

The cast of British actors seems to have difficulty with what has been decided would be the accents of that time in America. Some put in pauses that are so clunky it’s jarring. Most of the woman characters have longish hair held up by braids. Most of the men have beards. But John and Elizabeth Proctor (Brendan Cowell, Eileen Walsh) are different and stand out, perhaps to note they are separate in that community, although members of it. Eileen Walsh as Elizabeth Proctor has very short hair, very contemporary. She is stoical and occasionally mournful. As John Proctor Brendan Cowell is fascinating. He doesn’t seem to be in the same play as the others who are trying to suggest it’s 1692. He looks like he’s preparing to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. He is slightly hunched. His arms hang out from his body. He has the body language almost of a ‘biker.’ His accent seems somewhere around the Bronx. Fascinating.

But in the court room scene he is compelling and Lyndsey Turner’s staging/direction here is electrifying. When Elizabeth is brought into the court, John is ordered not to look at her to give her any hints of what to say. We are told that she would not lie to save John. She would reveal she knew that he strayed. In fact, she doesn’t. John’s reaction is immediate and dramatic. I loved that the audience gasped. John then has to confess his transgression and that he has seen the devil. Then he has to write it down and is forced to sign his name. When he hesitates he explains that he has confessed; that they all heard it. He does not want his proclamation to be nailed to the town hall wall. He gives one of the most powerful, speeches of the play about the importance of his name and what it stands for.

There is not “set” way to do any scene in any play. It’s so individual with any actor. That said, I have heard that speech declared, as if John Proctor is proud of his name and his determination to stand up to this tyranny. Brendan Cowell says the speech softly, almost in a whisper, almost defeated but still so moving. I always weep at that powerful scene Brendan Cowell gave me another reason to react that way to this incredible speech.

The play overcomes any flashy theatricality in the set; clumsy pacing; or wonky performances. Terrific play.

Comment. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible to condemn the McCarthy witch hunts in the U.S in the early 1950’s. But it also emulates our (anti)-social media; the speed with which rumor and innuendo spreads and no one can stop it when a lie is told; the rigidity of opinion and the refusal of one side to acknowledge the other side or even consider that there might be another opinion. Frightening and still so applicable to today.

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