The Crucible

Arthur Miller
West Yorkshire Playhouse
West Yorkshire Playhouse Quarry

Kate Phillips and Martin Marquez in The Crucible Credit: Keith Pattison
Alan Williams, Corinna Powlesland, Tim Chipping, Daniel Poyser, Lynette Clark and Steven Beard in The Crucible Credit: Keith Pattison
Dominic Gately, Susie Trayling, Martin Marquez and David Killick in The Crucible Credit: Keith Pattison

James Brining’s and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s energetic winning streak continues with a modern, faithful and dynamic staging of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, often afforded ‘classic’ status.

The programme note suggests Brining’s view that parallels with McCarthyist trials are less interesting to him than the current contemporary relevance of the play and its frenzied climate of fear and tension between the Establishment and the individual.

Despite this, he has put together a production which does not labour modern references but seeks an Epic—I use the word advisedly as Brechtian influences abound—staging which speaks to all ages.

As the audience enters the auditorium, almost the full space of the stage is open and occupied by different areas implying church pews, home and public spaces, with all the props and set visible around the edges of the stage. Brining from the outset thus cues us into production which is not slavishly bound to a realist reading, but which nonetheless evokes the time and place of Salem in the late 17th century.

The production astutely lends impetus to the lengthy, wordy opening scene by kicking off with a thrilling, powerful visual sequence employing the massive gauze drapes which run the width and height of the cavernous Quarry theatre. The spectral silhouetted figures of the girls witchily dancing in the woods are given gargantuan stature thanks to Colin Grenfell’s always stunning lighting design and Anna Morrissey’s striking movement work.

The cast are for the most part impeccable, and the ensemble draws on the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre to bring a large, youthful population to the stage. These are well used, such as when a dozen blank-faced girls respond to Abigail’s (Kate Phillips’s) lead in witnessing the devils in the eaves of the makeshift courtroom.

The sweeping scope of the cast and design is not, however, to the detriment of more detailed work, where Brining also excels. There are performances of power and conviction throughout the cast.

John Proctor, I have often thought, must be a poisoned chalice of a role, but Martin Marquez displays great sensitivity and power in the part. He gives a real sense of Proctor thinking on his feet in the face first of Hale’s (Daniel Poyser) cross-examination and later the growing swell against him. This Proctor, though, is less selfish than the cornered animal Miller envisaged, and seeks to comfort Mary Warren (Verity Kirk) rather than protect himself as the curtain (metaphorically) falls on the first half.

Throughout the production, Brining manipulates space with ease and relish. In the courtroom scene, Parris (Alan Williams) stays back, seeking to influence Deputy-Governor Danforth’s (Joseph Mydell) from behind the array of court officials. This means that the duel between Parris and Proctor is carried out at a distance, through flarings of anger and tension and across Hawthorne, Hale et al, to great effect.

Mydell brings a great gravitas to the role of Danforth, as well as a subtlety in the later stages of the play which raises searching questions as to the extent to which a powerful force of justice may ever publicly acknowledge past errors.

Poyser, as Hale, begins perhaps a little uncertainly, but likewise grows in confidence and subtlety through the journey of the role.

The production’s Abigail, played by recent graduate Kate Phillips, is sensuous and youthful, with hints of a dangerous imbalance from almost the very start. The three-way showdown between her, Proctor and Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, movingly portrayed by Susie Trayling, is powerfully prepared for and played out.

And Verity Kirk as Mary Warren, the one individual who hesitates and attempts to denounce the other girls in the village, also gives a winning performance. She shows perhaps one of the widest ranges on display here, wresting some superb character comedy and detail from the role, without undermining the confusion Mary feels at being thrust into a position in which she, for once, holds the power.

The final act takes place on a dramatically shifted stage, where Colin Richmond’s design and Colin Grenfell’s lighting combine once more to generate memorable, beautiful and apt imagery. Though there is money and high technology behind the transformation, the design cannily retains a chaotic, human element, the largest set element manoeuvred not by anonymous stagehands but by ensemble members, ploughing through the massed pews to leave a detritus of upturned chairs in its wake.

The one real misstep is, unfortunately, right at the climax. Attempting to end with a shock visual tactic, the production sadly loses more than it gains through the trick—it is counter to the laws of physics and concentrates the audience on the mechanics of the staging when one should be drawn precisely to the human aspect of Elizabeth and John’s plight.

Notwithstanding this, however, it is a modern production with a beating heart of truthfulness and fidelity to the text. Brining, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, march triumphantly on.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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