Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park
It is great news for London that Arthur Miller is back in fashion. Within a week of the triumphant West End opening of Howard Davies' All My Sons starring David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker, audiences were able to enjoy the return of another of his great plays.
The Crucible might ostensibly be set in Salem during the notorious witchcraft trials of the late 17th century but nobody should doubt that Miller's targets included not only the righteous madman of that time but also Senator Joe McCarthy and his modern day equivalent, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which indicted so many Americans, including the playwright himself, as communists in the 1950s.
What a difference a day makes. Had The Crucible opened 24 hours earlier, the actors and spectators would have been in danger of drowning in spectacular summer rain, which might have had some symbolic significance but would not have been much fun. However, the Gods smiled on all concerned and warm sunshine welcomed opening night visitors to the gorgeous, leafy Open-Air Theatre in Regent's Park.
Designer John Bausor has set the production on a stage, which comprises the facade of a wooden New England house of the period, through the doors and windows of which actors magically appear.
Unusually, his props included a team of up to a dozen, traditionally-dressed young women manipulated by movement director Liam Steel to comment silently on the action, never more tellingly than when they point their collective finger in mute accusation.
The evening gets off to a suitably dramatic start, as Christopher Fulford, playing the Reverend Parris, despairs over his terrifyingly hysterical daughter, Ellie Paskell as Betty. This is a sign of things to come in a town where sense has flown out of the window and madness amongst teenage girls soon spreads itself to their elders.
In very little time, the town's daughters, led by Emily Taaffe playing sexually forward Abigail Williams, have begun to point those fingers at their wise Puritan neighbours. Inexplicably, the forces of law and religion are sucked up into the insanity and begin to slaughter all and sundry as witches.
This madness continues for 3¼ hours, deep into a cold dark night, bringing out all of the manifold skills possessed by lighting designer Paul Keogan, who repeatedly creates memorable effects in a series of beautiful tableaux.
The central figures as the play develops are John Proctor, turned into a sexy renegade by Patrick O'Kane, and his wife Elizabeth (Emma Cunniffe). It is they who face the central paradox of a show trial magisterially presided over by Oliver Ford Davies playing Deputy-Governor Danforth.
By an elongated final scene, Proctor is more than once obliged to decide whether to give up the names of his neighbours and condemn them to horrible death or sacrifice his own reputation and life. This tortured soul eventually closes the evening in a fashion that offers hope for humanity.
Timothy Sheader has made a brave choice of modern work for this venue and directs himself. He can be overly fussy, which extends the playing time of what is anyway a long play.
His actors, aided by microphones which seem necessary as planes and helicopters occasionally fly overhead, give their all. It is pleasing that supporting performers, such as veterans Susan Engel and Patrick Godfrey and youngsters like Bettrys Jones, particularly good as the traumatised Mary Warren, have at least a brief chance to shine, in addition to the central players.
The Crucible is a wonderful play that will not only make its audiences think of America during its two phases of self-imposed lunacy, but also possibly more recent equivalents generated by self-righteous media folk, who regularly hound and shame relative innocents for their often inconsequential foibles.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher