There is much to enjoy about the Yard production of The Crucible. There is the rich imaginative language spoken by actors who understand its meaning. Importantly, there is the outrage against a terrible injustice that isn’t simply the cruelty of 1692 Salem but also all those other times the powerful have whipped up some moral fury against a convenient enemy.
Certain scenes hold your attention with an intensity it is hard to forget. In particular, Emma D'Arcy is extraordinary in the very tender final moments she spends with her husband John Proctor who is given a very strong performance by Caolifhionn Dunne.
You can marvel at the play and yet still be irritated by many of this production’s distracting directorial decisions. They start instantly with someone awkwardly and self consciously wandering across the stage ringing a bell. That is followed by a replacement of Arthur Miller’s opening scene in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris (Syrus Lowe) where the mystery of a child that will not wake is generating a rising panic among many of the characters. Instead, the director gives us what looks and feels like the first read through of an amateur group preparing a production of a downmarket audio book.
Nine people in everyday clothes sit passively among the nineteen chairs facing the audience in several rows. They don’t look at each other. Their accents vary but none are American. The words they speak are a mixture of the dialogue and the stage directions Arthur Miller included in the text to guide the actors.
When they eventually risk movement, it is of a limited kind, involving the nod of a head, a shift of the body so as to nervously hold the back of a chair and even the sudden look at another person. All this makes the entrance of the Reverend John Hale (Jack Holden) with his long strides and extended arm gestures the more startling.
Most of the audience will be relieved to find subsequent scenes settle into a more conventional presentation with American accents. While such directorial antics puzzle, they are more the insertion of the theatre games actors might play as a warm up. They don’t necessarily clash with the central message of the text that there are no witches, just private prejudice working a terrible havoc. However, the director has other ways of undermining the play’s humanist vision. In scene one, there is a spooky looking curtained cot centre-stage illuminated in the style of the film The Exorcist. Goody Nurse (Lucy Vandi) waves her arms magically over the cot. At times, a voice comes from some source lurking within. Across the stage throughout the play wander hooded figures in masks. They are referred to in the programme as witches. Three haunting songs are thrown into the mix and increasingly the actors are accompanied by a throbbing horror movie soundscape.
Breaking with the decision the writer made for good reasons to delete a scene in which Proctor and a seemingly mentally ill Abigail Williams (Nina Cassells) meet in the wood, the director Jay Miller resurrects it with the actors speaking into microphones on a ghostly lit stage.
This production is still worth seeing for its fine cast, for its poetic language and its still burning protest against injustice. But I fear it will be remembered as the rather peculiar folly of a restless director.