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The Crucible

Arthur Miller
York Theatre Royal
(2011)

Juliet Forster directs a gripping opening show in the York Theatre Royal's In The Round Ensemble season.

Those who witnessed last autumn's Wind in the Willows will not be too surprised by the setup of the auditorium, a sort of semi-in-the-round configuration which at first leaves you wondering where you actually are in relation to the traditional main house. In fact, the set design and layout is notably similar to that earlier production, with a similar layer of weathered wood overlaid upon the theatre's usual proscenium grandeur. It's an effective transformation and a fitting one for The Crucible, though it will be interesting to see the extent to which the design of forthcoming shows might explore the potential of the different setup in other ways. The additional scene-change trickery built into the set is, however, impressive, smooth and unobtrusive.

There are familiar faces, too, but it is for the most part the newcomers to York who provide the strongest performances in an ensemble which is on the whole excellent. Once Simeon Truby, as Reverend Parris, settles into the long, startling opening act, he becomes increasingly convincing, and the quiet, laser-beam intensity of RSAMD student Lucille Sharp's Abigail is in no small part responsible for the power of this 'overture'. Her relationship with John Proctor (Stephen Billington) is utterly convincing: the undertones of her youthful passion and his somewhat reluctant repentance are sketched with precision in this first skirmish. Billington as a whole is a commanding and calmly charismatic presence; the actor does not put a foot wrong as a man tormented by his own past actions, trying to atone for past sins, and yet self-assured in his rejection of the Church - as manifested in Reverend Parris.

Jonathan Race, a Theatre Royal old hand by now, also deserves a mention for his moving portrayal of Reverend Hale, a youthful and more sensitive face of the Church. As with many of Miller's characters, what is most touching is the way Hale's certainties shift - the questions to which he is forced to face up - and Race is again more than equal to the task.

The same can be said of the younger actors of the RSAMD, of whom Helen Macfarlane as Mary Warren surprises (pleasantly) the most, moving from what seems at first like a rather silly opening appearance to become engaging and sympathetic. Hysteria is not easy as a key-note, but Macfarlane alternately trembles, stares and asserts herself well, showing us a young girl out of her depth but still trying to do the right thing. Of the more experienced cast, Helen Kay as Elizabeth Proctor also puts in a fine performance, with a quiet, wounded dignity.

As the first act swells and shifts, the numbers onstage grow and the production gives us a strong sense of the village beyond this garret room, coming either to snoop or to pray (and often both) at the sick Betty's bedside. The directing is assured and subtle here too, with large numbers of bodies configured naturally and effectively onstage. There are none of the audibility issues which occasionally afflicted the theatre's earlier experiment with the in-the-round setup.

The second half veers occasionally close to volume-fuelled melodrama after the pure intensity of the first, and there are noticeably more moments when the cast falters, particularly in the otherwise tense courtroom scene, but this cannot detract from strong overall performances and a fine, restrained production. Christopher Hirst's lighting, like Dawn Allsopp's set, is stark and unfussy but not unnatural. Catherine Chapman's costumes are also simple evocations of the world of 17th Century Salem, not imposing another reading on the events of the play but placing us firmly in this world where witchcraft is a real threat and to denounce (the accepted way of worshipping) God is to sign your own death warrant. Which is not, of course, to suggest that the piece does not resonate beyond its time.

It will be interesting to observe how this ensemble grows together over the coming shows and with more time together, but this is a strong opening statement from the new-look Theatre Royal and a powerful production of an often stunning text.

Reviewer: Mark Smith