Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
From 18 September 2015 to 24 October 2015
Review by David Chadderton
Miller's 1953 play is, on the surface, a fictionalised account of the hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 over accusations of witchcraft, but is famous for parallelling Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee's "witch hunts" to root out suspected communists.
But when you get rid of the historical aspect of a historical allegory with a modern-dress production, are you left with anything other than the surface?
The play contains several characters jostling for place as the lead in this multi-threaded story. Firstly Abigail Williams, on the brink of adulthood, starts a series of lies to prevent her and her friends from getting into trouble for the sin of dancing, accusing others of bewitching them.
This then becomes a way to wreak revenge on people in the village by accusing them of witchcraft. For some reason, the authorities are more willing to believe the children's accusations than the denials of upstanding members of the community and the church.
The second candidate is John Proctor, a hard-working farmer riddled with guilt after a brief fling with Abigail when she kept house for him. Abigail doesn't accept that the affair is over and directs her accusations to his wife, Elizabeth.
Finally, Reverend John Hale, initially brought in to root out and destroy the evil spirits, goes through the largest change from a whole-hearted believer to a man horrified that his well-meaning investigations have resulted in the deaths by hanging of so many people.
Designer Max Jones sets the play in a large, shallow concrete pit, which looks more like the backdrop to one of Simon Stephens's depressing depictions of Stockport than seventeenth century Salem. The pit fills with water for the last act, leaving the actors to slosh about annoyingly for the whole scene.
The men are in modern dress, whereas the women are all in similar shapeless dresses. This New England community sounds, by its accents, to largely be recent immigrants from Lancashire, with a few from Ireland.
Caroline Steinbeis's production has an impressive cast of 19 with some very experienced actors even in some of the smaller parts, and so there are scenes where great performances bring through the powerful writing, as well as some nice touches of comedy.
As a whole, however, the production doesn't come together and actors are sometimes left looking lost or filling gaps with actions that don't fit in with everything else. It looks as though too much effort has been spent on imposing a greater concept with not enough attention to the finer details.
Some performances in particular shine through: Jonjo O'Neill is a strong Proctor with good support from Matti Houghton as his wife; Tim Steed plays the bookish, moral Hale just perfectly; Ria Zmitrowicz is excellent as an awkward, frightened Mary Warren; Sam Cox gets across the humour of straight-talking landowner Giles Corey; Peter Guinness is the perfect choice for Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, the main voice of the law.
But it is an uneven production of a long play (don't be caught out by the 7PM start time) that has some very good moments but is hampered by an unnecessary concept that serves no purpose other than to draw attention to itself.