The Crucible

Arthur Miller
National Theatre
The Gielgud Theatre

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Milly Alcock as Abigail Williams & Brian Gleeson as John Proctor Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Fisayo Akinade as Reverend John Hale Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Matthew Marsh as Deputy Governor Danforth, Nia Towle as Mary Warren Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The American governmental persecution of those it labelled communist in the late 1940s into the 1950s drove thousands out of their jobs and sent some to prison. It was a cruel, bewildering time that Arthur Miller recognised had a parallel to the Salem witch-hunts of 1692.

As he set about writing The Crucible, set in the 17th century, he was struck with a deep fear that he too would be called to name others who may have dipped a toe into the radical communist politics of the 1930s economic Depression when millions were losing jobs and the means even to buy food.

What emerged was a play whose lyrical language, distinctive characters and politically moving conflicts make it one of the great plays of the 20th century.

With modern politicians often eager to mobilise a moral panic to maintain their power, it may be very timely that the National Theatre’s production of the play directed by Lyndsey Turner transfers to the Gielgud Theatre.

It’s a clearly spoken production with some good performances from, for instance, Tilly Tremayne, as Rebecca Nurse and Karl Johnson as Giles Corey. There have been some changes since its appearance on the Olivier stage. Importantly, they have removed an inserted epilogue which undercut the drama and politics of the final scene.

Unfortunately, they have retained a number of distracting elements. Among them is the inserted prologue in which a number of young women say various things it is difficult to take in. This is followed by an unnecessary visual scene of a religious service in which Abigail is shown being hit for inattention by Reverend Parris (Nick Fletcher).

A sheet of rain at the front of the stage opening and closing each scene, gets a few audience members taking its picture but contributes nothing to the show, especially since no character ever gets wet. It is debatable whether the low-key, ominous humming in a number of the scenes adds anything, but the occasional singing of religious-sounding melodies that in at least one case made it difficult to hear the odd word spoken certainly wasn't useful.

However, the atmospheric lighting design of Tim Lutkin impressively conjures up a claustrophobic front of the stage tailing off into the darkening depths from which the characters emerge and depart.

Among more than nine changes to the cast, we now have Milly Alcock in the role of Abigail Williams with Caitlin FitzGerald as Elizabeth Proctor and Brian Gleeson as John Proctor.

The performance seems more settled than its Olivier incarnation, but there remains a narrow inflexibility in the way scenes are played. Thus Fisayo Akinade as the Reverend Hale is always a reasonable man even when he is praising rebellion in Andover.

Lyndsey Turner still doesn’t seem to point the play’s meaning in any particular direction, whether it's to stress the responsibility of the young women who were the initial focus of the supposed trouble or to perhaps emphasise the way the wealthy Putnam is opportunistically using the social panic to grab other people’s land. This can undermine the sense of tragedy and may explain why the press night audience felt relaxed enough to find a fair amount to laugh at.

It's a watchable production of a great play, but it could have been so much more.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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