Lyric Theatre, Belfast
When the Waterfont Hall opened in 1997, the impact its stunning amphitheatre shape had on Belfast's skyline was all the more striking as its exterior was almost entirely made of glass: an architectural gestus of faith in a peaceful future, one foreshadowing the Good Friday Agreement signed the following year. More than ten years later, the impressive new Lyric Theatre is even more eloquent in signifying the cultural regeneration of Belfast. This extraordinary building with its angular, asymmetrical lines and fluid social space, situated along the shores of the Lagan River, is a poetical physical tribute to the vision and imagination of its architects O'Donnell and Tuomey, as well as the redoubtable work of the Lyric's staff and board in lobbying and fundraising for the project. Both have bequeathed Belfast with the most impressive theatre in all of Ireland; one that should inspire artists and audiences for generations to come.
In light of the emotional relaunch of a much-loved local theatre, founded in 1951, and the appropriately celebratory atmosphere of the occasion, it feels almost churlish to criticise the conservatism of selecting Arthur Miller's The Crucible to open the place officially, all the more so when Conall Morrison delivers a classy production of a classic play. Nonetheless, it is still disappointingly vapid choice that stands in sharp contrast with the vision of the building itself.
Informed by Miller's personal experiences at the hands of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, The Crucible uses the seventeenth century Salem witch trials as a metaphor to critique the HUAC's Cold War era onslaught against communism in the 1950s, and its attack on authoritarianism appears equally valid today. Thankfully, Morrison's production is too intelligent to hammer home heavy-handed parallels between the play and 'post'-conflict Northern Ireland. And yet, the dangers of how religious fanaticism, suspicion, repression and fear can spiral into the savage disintegration of a community and Rev. Hale's rejoinder that "life is God's most precious gift; no principle, not matter how glorious can ever justify the taking of it", has a special resonance for local audiences in the aftermath of the Troubles.
On the tabula rasa of the Lyric's new stage Sabine Dargent's minimalist set captures the puritan simplicity of this remote religious community of Salem, with the rear wall revolving to reveal the private spaces of both Parris and Proctor households alternating with the public ones of the prison and the court (all of which are equally repressive). Moreover, the plain wooden walls of Dargent's stage design blend seamlessly with the wooden décor of the auditorium, diffusing any sense of a barrier between both worlds as a potent reminder that the events unfolding before us all are neither confined to seventeenth century Salem nor to Cold War McCarthyism. This connection is further consolidated as the predominantly Ulster accents of the ensemble render the religious fundamentalism and repressed sexuality of Miller's dialogue disconcertingly familiar to present day audiences.
This unsettling familiarity is again evident with the arrival of Rev. Hale (Ruairi Conaghan), who, tasked to investigate allegations of witchcraft in the parish, goes about his business with an evangelical fervour that can still be found in legions (an inappropriate word?) of gospel halls and mission houses littering the North of Ireland. His aggressive interrogation of Betty Parris (Aisling Groves) and Tituba (Angel Phinnimore) and Pentecostalist laying on of hands as he strives to 'release' them from the Devil's grip sends him into paroxysms of joy that are shared by Betty's father Rev. Parris. However, Parris' piety (played brilliantly by Malcolm Adams) is pretence for he celebrates his own deliverance, not his daughter's, as this demonic intercession has "saved" him from public disgrace.
Patrick O'Kane's resists the temptation of Christ to play John Proctor as a kind of messiah, for it's only at the end of the play, as his wife Elizabeth dolorously concedes, that 'he has his goodness now'. O'Kane's first scene with Abigail (Aoife Duffin) is charged with sexual energy; their carnal gaze and Proctor's reluctance to break from Abigail's repeated heated embraces - "I've a sense for heat John and yours has drawn me" - encourages her to believe he may yet leave his "cold snivelling" wife for the warmth of her bed. Duffin and O'Kane's scene is jarringly sensuous from the repressed physicality of the rest of the play; their fraught exchanges freighted with guilt and desire. But when O'Kane patronises Abigail that their relationship is over by hailing her "Child", Abigail explodes with rage, "How do you call me child?" It is an ominous augury of what is to come, for Abigail's actions cannot be conveniently ascribed to childish "mischief": she is a child no longer, not since "John Proctor took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart". Duffin's impassioned pleas here make plain that Proctor's actions are equally to blame for the horror that is to unfold.
In spite of his physical presence, O'Kane plays Proctor as a weak man, not just because of his lust for a seventeen year old servant girl, but for his cowardice in pushing forward another servant, Mary Warren (Charlotte McCurry), as a proxy to destroy Abigail's and the court's credibility, instead of confronting her himself and confessing his "lechery" to the court. In the last scenes, however, Proctor's belated discovery of his own goodness and assertion of his integrity is introspectively played by O'Kane, which makes the closing scene an unsettling, even unsatisfying, experience given that he exits stage for the scaffold a hapless victim; there is no valediction.
The Crucible was written rather quickly as Miller sought to preserve its current political voltage as an attack on McCarthyism. Consequently, the play is somewhat preachy but Morrison's deft direction minimises these melodramatic elements to produce an intense experience.
In this he is ably assisted by some great performances. Catherine Cusack's Elizabeth is no "cold wife", but brings instead a reserved grace to her role as the moral centre of the play, one shared with Lalor Roddy's Giles Corey, whose moments of levity and gravity are alternatively hilarious and harrowing. Alan Stanford is perfectly cast as the implacable Judge Danforth: his stentorian voice and massive frame manifesting the unyielding presence of the law.
Indeed, Morrison assembles an excellent ensemble comprising both established and emerging talent, many of them from the North. In fact, the entire production is an impressive advertisement of local talent and it's a long time since more than twenty Irish actors graced a Belfast stage, and in such parlous financial climes, it is all the more gratifying to see such large-scale quality work, something that will hopefully be an on-going commitment by the Lyric as our only producing theatre.
Although The Crucible is an unambitious choice to inaugurate the new Lyric, the production itself is a real triumph and one that augurs well for the future. In light of the religious themes of the play, perhaps it wouldn't be inappropriate to offer up some prayers (or to dance naked amidst the Minnowburn beeches) that we might see more new writing on the boards of our new 'national' theatre; unfortunately there is precious little promised in the programme so far
"The Crucible" runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, until 5th June
Reviewer: Mark Phelan