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Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which is appearing on tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre, is regarded by many as a modern classic. First performed in New York just over fifty years ago in 1953, The Crucible is a thinly veiled attack on the political witch-hunt of the Un-American Activities Committee headed by McCarthy. Miller saw the frantic search for reds under the bed, the public denunciation of fellow artistes, and the muscling out of the entertainment industry of any who were even suspected of socialist sympathies, as analogous to the Salem witch trials of late 1600 Massachusetts. The 1950s became a time when personal scores were settled, when the power-hungry could devour with an accusing nod of the head, and talent was insufficient to ensure survival — when political correctness in its purest sense ruled.
The Crucible is a fictional re-enactment of a real moment in America’s history, when Puritans, a persecuted religious sect descended from the Pilgrim Fathers and persecuted by Charles I in England, found their own isolated world threatened by a new evil — capitalism. By 1692, opposing factions within the small Salem Village community were confronting the change from agrarian economic individualism to capitalist entrepreneurship with deep suspicion. How could the predestined Godliness of the Elect Protestant accept the emergence of a powerful mercantile class who imposed their own political and religious will on a community, even going so far as building a new church and employing its own minister?
Miller’s play openly suggests that the motivation for the witch trials was personal greed and the opportunity to acquire vast areas of land. This opportunity arose from the sexually repressed mass hysteria of a group of young Salem girls who maliciously conjured up accusations of witchcraft against the women of the village in an attempt to shield their own adolescent indiscretions. What results is a play in which hearsay and hypocrisy, savagery and suspicion, superstition and fear, all combine to force a wilful self-destruction on a fanatical fundamentalist religious community.
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company and The Touring Consortium have done great justice to Miller’s nightmare. A strong cast projects the simplicity of their hatred and fear in a period piece of surprising force and topicality. To the Americans in the 1950s, Miller was a voice of reason — or of rebellion — in a world of mass suspicion. This new production highlights the dangers of religious fundamentalism, and in a strange twist of artistic fate, finds a new analogy closer to the original Salem story — the manipulation of the weak by a powerful and unstoppable economic force. This is progress, and progress for the unfortunate many, often hurts.
The stultifying claustrophobia of the village Meeting House is beautifully recreated by Simon Higlett’s vast wooden set. Combined with Mark Jonathan’s magical naturalistic lighting which seems to invade the space under duress, the visual effect is as striking as a Vermeer painting. The costumes are likewise simple and evocative. These are real people existing in real world. Wisps of smoke emerge from between the close-boarded walls and floor as the stench of cattle and corn, cooking and decay visibly embraces a world bereft of comfort, even of heat and light. Only the court house, that symbol of the new authority of the wider state, is drowned in the grey light from vast leaded windows of diamond plain glass. The law is the new religion, the court the new cathedral, and superstition the new incentive for revenge and personal gain.
Jonathan Church has directed a surprisingly claustrophobic piece with the broad brush strokes of a master painter. Moments of extreme intimacy are focused in the cavernous set. Oliver Cotton as Deputy Governor Danforth, the driving force behind the quest for ‘truth’ and the legal accusations against so many women, fills the space with austere almost manic authority. Cotton’s Danforth represents the new breed of state governor risen from the lawyer classes. Against a brain as quick witted and as narrow as Danforth’s, the humble plaintiff hasn’t a chance.
Malcolm Storry as John Proctor, the poor landowner who struggles against his own baser instincts in a valiant attempt to remain a loving husband and father, also gives a magnificent performance. Storry’s eventual downfall is frighteningly believable, as the character struggles to maintain dignity in the face of imminent death. He is supported by the equally strong and serene performance of Patricia Kerrigan as his dutiful, loving and suffering wife, Elizabeth Proctor. It is Elizabeth who sparks sufficient jealousy to warrant her removal from the Salem community. It is Elizabeth whose strength of character is at once forgiving and resolute in her refusal to admit to ridiculous accusations, even if it results in her own or her husband’s death.
The Proctors are no saints; they may believe they are of the Elect but they question a world run riot with superstition and religious fervour. In such a world, the voice of dissent needs to be silenced. Only the playwright can raise these voices from their graves. Miller succeeds by creating a husband and wife who represent the ‘everyperson’ who, dearly longing to live their subsistence lives as peacefully and as honourably as they can, are unwittingly embroiled in a vain struggle against the inevitable progress — progress founded upon consumption and acquisition.
There are no weak links in this production. A huge cast of twenty actors creates a world that is real, and only a few generations away from our own. Each character is perfectly formed and unique and does justice to this fine production. It is rare for a touring play to recapture the magic of its original conception. This production of The Crucible does just that. A crucible is an earthenware fiery melting pot to liquefy metals. It is also a metaphor for an extreme trial. The Rep’s production of The Crucible pours the raw talent of so many individuals and fires them into a glistering whole. For an evening of thought-provoking and stimulating entertainment, this is one not to be missed.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004
Originally published on R&V 27-10-04
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