Old Vic Theatre
29 July 2014
runs until 13 September
Perhaps sometimes I just build up too much anticipation for a show before seeing it. What with the five-star reviews flooding in, the prospect of seeing the dashing Richard Armitage on stage and the directorship of the wonderful Yael Farber — whose Mies Julie and Nirbhaya I so admired — I couldn’t wait to get to the Old Vic for this production of the American classic.Yet after all this hype I was left slightly disappointed by what is a solid but not, I felt, an exceptional show. There is much to praise in Farber’s rendering of this timeless story, but I wasn’t overwhelmed. Nor I was underwhelmed, though, thanks to Miller’s still brilliant script — perhaps just whelmed? (N.B. If you don’t get that reference you need to be watching more American high school rom-com adaptations of Shakespearean texts…).
Anyway. Yael Farber’s previous work has left me gasping at its intensity, claustrophobia and raw passion; The Crucible is the perfect play for all these elements, but it just falls a little short. At times it feels like the cast are trying a little too hard, mistaking shouting for conveying strong emotion. The disturbing nature of rumour and accusation would do better to slither through the play’s society more slowly, so it reveals itself all the more shockingly, rather than being yelled out from the start. Scenes — and indeed the production in general — often reach their emotional peak too early, leaving the performers with nowhere to go, rather than building to an effective climax.
The other key issue is it is simply too long. Three and a half hours is, quite frankly, unnecessary; shortening the piece would by no means dumb it down or be a cop-out, but instead would compress the action, giving it more intensity. As it is, later scenes between the court officials feel rather dry, when a pacier performance would have assisted in ensuring the audience are kept gripped right up to the final moment.
However, there are many good things in Farber’s production that I can’t overlook. As John Proctor, Armitage is powerful and burns with anger (again rather too shouty at times, but he isn’t the worst offender) while, in contrast, the wonderful Anna Madeley as his accused (and accusing) wife, Elizabeth, exudes quiet power. While Natalie Gavin is an excellent Mary Warren, there is a stand-out turn from newcomer Samantha Colley as Abigail: her blazing performance is remarkable, her steely gaze rarely faltering, proving a formidable force. As a professional theatre debut, it’s not half bad, and I hope we see much more of her on the London stage.
Farber’s production really amps up the gloomy, witch-like feel and the scenes of apparent possession are dramatic and effective, if occasionally erring on the side of the obvious and self-indulgent. More impressive staging is present in the scenes in the Proctors’ home, where the set (Soutra Gilmour) and skilful lighting design (Tim Lutkin) bring out a wonderfully earthy quality that suits the base instincts of Proctor, as he farms the soil, feasts on simple dinner and, as it turns out, lusts after their servant girl. When accusations of the supernatural invade this earthly home, it really is one of the potent moments that I was hoping would pervade the whole production.
This is a secure retelling of Miller’s celebrated play, but nothing much surprised me in Farber’s decision-making. What strikes me most powerfully is, in fact, the jolting relevance of a 1953 play about a 1692 witch-hunt. At the time, of course, the play spoke profoundly of the McCarthyist Red Scare and the activities of HUAC; now it hits home thanks to its themes of religious fundamentalism, a skewed justice system and the rapid spread of rumour. In a world of religious conflict, Yewtree investigations, the war on terror and Twitter gossip, Miller’s script still has some damning and probing things to ask about justice and condemnation that should hit hard and weigh on our collective conscience.