National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)
A curtain of rain shrouds the stage at the start of Lyndsey Turner’s revival of The Crucible. It is a concept that she and designer Es Devlin have used before and it makes a spectacular statement to establish the cold harshness of life in the isolated village of Salem. Behind it, a church congregation appears all turned towards their preacher and raising hands to heaven in unison: a sectarian society where people don’t step out of line.
When Miller wrote this play about a late seventeenth century witch-hunt, it paralleled the activities of Senator McCarthy and the Committee on Un-American Activities. Today, modern media have made its message ever more relevant in a world of fake news, information control and trolling.
In a society full of prohibitions and superstition, local minister Rev Samuel Parris (Nick Fletcher) has caught sight of some girls (including his daughter Betty and slave girl Tituba) dancing naked in the forest. Now, with Betty in bed comatose, he questions his orphaned niece Abigail who seems to have been the girls’ ringleader. Abigail (Erin Doherty) claims they were just dancing, but actually she had got the girls to help her try to curse farmer’s wife Elizabeth Proctor (Eileen Walsh) who, discovering she had slept with her husband John, had dismissed her from her job as their servant.
Meanwhile, concerned for his own situation, Parris has sent for Rev John Hale (Fisayo Akinade), an expert on witchcraft.
So begins a hunt for witches to blame for babies born dead, sickness of animals and other ill events in which Abigail sees an opportunity to get her revenge upon Goodwife Proctor. Watchful and clever, she manipulates the other girls into hysterical reaction to claimed demonic presences.
Accusations abound and hangings will follow, though those accused can save their lives they confess they have dealt with the Devil. In this world of blind belief, those who stick to the truth and won’t make false confession are doomed.
Heading the court they appear before is Deputy Governor Danforth. Matthew Marsh makes him dogmatic but calm, provided his authority isn’t challenged, but attempts to get the truth told prove fruitless. There is a major confrontation between him and those who speak for the innocent.
Who could doubt the innocence of Tilly Tremayne’s kind Rebecca Nurse? But when John Proctor comes to court with a deposition signed by 91 people attesting to the good character of Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey, Danforth reacts by ordering the arrest of all who signed it. Giles Corey offers evidence of an accusation made to get hold of land but, when he refuses to name his informant, it is he who gets arrested.
Proctor has also brought his maid Mary Warren to court to tell them that she and the other girls have been lying. She finds the courage to speak out but, faced with an onslaught from Abigail, Danforth’s threats and her own isolation, she crumbles. To discredit Abigail and expose her motives, Proctor then admits to having relations with her but, when Elizabeth Proctor seems to contradict her husband’s confession of adultery, he too is arrested.
It is a scene that draws especially fine performances from Rachelle Diedericks as Mary, Karl Johnson as Giles and Brendan Cowell as Proctor, but the danger that threatens these people is presented as a continual presence in this production by the appearance in the chiaroscuro shadows far upstage of the child accusers or of things being enacted as they are referred to downstage.
Cowell makes Proctor a very ordinary human but one with integrity. He’s not a political figure who is questioning the system. The Rev Hale, played with sensitivity and a gentle authority by Fisayo Akinade, is the one who is beginning to question the system, the rigid society, a gleam of hope in this dark world.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton