Richard Armitage as John Proctor. Photo© Johan Persson
Reviewed by James Karas
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible receives a stunning production at the Old Vic Theatre in London. It is the type of play that leaves you breathless by its sheer power and overwhelming drama. If you can catch several such productions in a year, count yourself extremely lucky.
The Crucible is about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the spring of 1692 but it is about much more than that. The initial inspiration for the play was the House Un-American Committee hearings (the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950’s) but if you know nothing about them, it makes little difference. There are witch-hunts all around us and the play should resonate with everyone. As astonishing drama, it has few competitors in American dramatic literature.
The Old Vic has been turned into a theatre in the round. There are seats on and around the stage leaving a relatively small acting area. The spectators on the stage are of course right in the action. That leaves no room for a set except for a couple of tables, some chairs and a bed as required.
The Crucible offers several great roles and the production, directed with astonishing ability by Yaël Farber has some remarkable performances. Richard Armitage takes on the role of John Proctor, a decent farmer accused of being in league with Lucifer. Armitage’s Proctor is a man of moral and physical strength despite having strayed once. He is sufficiently humane to refuse to attend the local church run by the Reverend Paris who knows about sin, evil and hell but nothing about love, forgiveness and humanity. Armitage’s display of tragic strength and grandeur is simply unforgettable.
The leader of the seekers of Satan (he is in fact a “judge”) is Deputy Governor Danforth played by Jack Ellis. The search for witches is initiated by hysteric young girls but Danforth is a smart, closed-minded bigot who genuinely believes that Satan can occupy people’s souls and that he, Danforth, is able to exorcise him. Ellis as Danforth displays the deadly force that a bully can possess to intimidate and terrorize people.
Michael Thomas plays Reverend Paris as a small, weak, foolish and selfish man and, as if that were not enough, he is also very nasty.
Reverend John Hale (Adrian Schiller) is equally convinced of the existence of witches but he soon realizes his error and with the exception of Proctor and the decent people of Salem who are imprisoned and executed, he is the most tragic person in the drama. He sees and knows what is happening but cannot stop it.
The hysterics of the young girls when they are “possessed” by the Devil is frightful and convincing.
Decency, rational thinking, even common sense do not stand a chance against the rampaging hysteria of the girls, the powerful and self-satisfied bullying of Danforth, the selfishness of Paris and the willing cooperation of some townspeople. A mixture of self-interest and perhaps, and only perhaps, genuine belief propel people to do awful things to others.
This is an enthralling production that will move you and infuriate you. Even though I know almost every line of the play, I was captivated by every turn in the plot as if such unreason could not exist and if it did there will be a vindication of the innocent and not an execution.
The witch-hunts of the 1690’s, 1950’s and of today are still with us.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller continues until September 13, 2014 at the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London, England. http://www.oldvictheatre.com/