Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
A deadly and unseen enemy allegedly threatens the safety of every citizen in America. The country's leaders claim this is justification for breaches of justice and civil liberties. Is this Salem in the late 1600s when witch trials were rife, the United States in the 1950s at the time of McCarthyism and anti-communist hysteria - or America in the 21st century when the war on terrorism is used as an excuse for barbarism?
That's the background to The Crucible which the RSC is presenting for the first time in its history. It's the last major production before the company embarks on its Shakespeare complete works adventure. The RSC could hardly have made a better choice.
Artistic director Michael Boyd has acknowledged that Arthur Miller is one of a handful of 20th century dramatists who is able to match Shakespeare's humanity and political insight. The Crucible is a play in the Shakespearean tradition and the RSC is producing it as a tribute to Miller who died just over a year ago.
Its potency is startling as it demonstrates the paranoiac power of the courts which bore all the hallmarks of a wild west gunslinger: execute first and ask questions later.
In the hands of Dominic Cooke, who takes over as artistic director at the Royal Court at the end of this year, The Crucible has multi-layered depth, bringing out qualities including fundamentalism and suppression of free speech as well as self-righteousness and fear of authority.
The play starts with a group of girls dancing in a forest. Is one of them naked? Do they conjure up the devil? Will the truth ever be known?
Iain Glen gives a towering performance as John Proctor, the man who steadfastly defends his wife against allegations that she's indulged in witchcraft. His admission that he's committed adultery with Abigail Williams is full of pathos and his disintegration into a broken man after three months in prison is touchingly sad.
Elaine Cassidy presents a strong, resolute Abigail who does whatever it takes to save her life; Lorna Gayle is a feisty Tituba; Robert Bowman gives a stirring display as Reverend John Hale who is determined to uncover the facts whatever they may be; and many of the rest of the 22-strong cast give faultless interpretations.
Michelle Terry is impressive as Mary Warren who struggles to make the court understand why she's confessed her sins and changed her story. The silence when court officials are reading through her deposition is gripping.
James Laurenson is an authoritative Deputy-Governor Danforth although I should have liked him to show more of a fear-inducing quality.
Almost everything about this production is commendable. Hildegard Bechtler's design is functionally simple, with the set quickly changing from the forest to the interior of houses and then the courtroom, inventively lit by Jean Kalman.
A large number of students were in the audience the night I saw The Crucible. They were treated to a superb performance which will no doubt enhance their understanding of the play and lead to continued debate about Miller's greatness.
"The Crucible" runs at Stratford until March 18th and transfers to the Gielgud Theatre, London, from March 29th
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Gielgud Theatre
Reviewer: Steve Orme