Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3
You must have seen the insane amount five star reviews for the new production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ now playing at the Old Vic Theatre. Starring Richard Armitage (Spooks, The Hobbit Trilogy) and directed by Yaël Farber, for those of you who don’t know, The Crucible tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials. At the time of writing, it was meant to be a massive critique of McCarthyism, which itself was like a witch-hunt, from which you either confessed or were executed/exiled.
Never in my life have I been so gripped and personally invested in a plot; I’m surprised I have any nails left at all; my hands were raking through my hair almost continually; I even actually spoke (whispering under my breath of course, this is a theatre after all!) out loud, I was that into the drama. I had thought I knew the story before… Turns out I only remembered the first act, meaning the whole of the incredibly suspenseful second half was a complete surprise.
I have also never wanted to kill quite so many characters as in this play; Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley) is a shrieking banshee, accusing practically the whole town of being a ‘consort of the devil’ in an effort of divert suspicion from herself and take personal vengeance on farmer John Proctor (Armitage) and his honest, upstanding wife, Elizabeth (a poised, dignified Anna Madeley, who was also the Governess in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ last year). Abigail and John had a brief, passionate fling a year earlier, during Elizabeth’s long illness, and Abigail was summarily dismissed and kicked out of the house. Now she, and the other ‘children’ (teenage girls) in the village, are using their new-found power, which no one can truly disprove, to accuse everyone and anyone they choose of witchcraft.
However, this is not only a tale of private revenge, but also one of the conflict between the individual and the state. Despite some of the most religious and virtuous women in the town being accused, no one will believe John Proctor or his easily swayed, hysterical servant, Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) that the girls’ ‘fits’ are fraudulent pretence. The most distressing thing for me was that you could see the authority figures, like Deputy Governer Danforth (an excellent Jack Ellis) and Reverend John Hale (an equally brilliant Adrian Schiller), genuinely thought they were doing God and the Law’s work; that they were being just and logical, even though they’d basically chucked logic out the window.
The cast overall are completely incredible. One of my favourites was William Gaunt as Giles Corey, the ‘old man’ who initially brings some comic relief, but later reveals himself to be smart, determined and indomitable.
Armitage himself was fantastic as the complex hero of the piece; brooding and troubles but genuinely shameful for his ‘lechery’ and truly loving of his wife and family. I loved the way Elizabeth had her hair hidden by a scarf for almost the whole piece, making her seem somewhat cold and less human, but that it was finally taken off at the very end; she both revealed her vulnerability and her humanity in her love and understanding for her husband. The other girls also wore headscarves which would fall off when they showed their personalities during fits of rage or ‘spiritualism’ – this was a really nice touch, and, I thought, suggested an uncontrollable animalistic nature hidden underneath society’s restraint. The ‘good’ women of the play never removed their scarves (excepting, of course, Elizabeth), as though they had entirely controlled this spirit inside themselves. The ending of the piece was poignant; Proctor could finally call himself a ‘good man’… but at a price. It was especially moving because it became clear the ‘authority figures’ didn’t really want to see anyone die, but couldn’t stop the course they themselves had set without losing face.
The girls in the ensemble also deserve special mentions; their supposed ‘fits’ could easily have slipped to the side of ridiculous, but they were instead deeply disturbing.
With sparse wooden furniture, menacing music and mist, the staging also contributed massively to the ominous atmosphere. I really like the whole ‘In-the-round’ thing the Old Vic’s got going on, even though, being high up, it didn’t have that big of an impact on me personally. All the different access points really make the action more dynamic, and Farber makes full use of every inch of the stage. This production is over three hours long (even longer than most Shakespeare!); the actors take their time on the stage, allowing us insight into their daily life, their rituals… The silent presence of actors helping to removing and adding furniture between scenes felt almost threatening at times, and also served the emphasise the isolation of a character once they all left. The lighting was clever too, placed below when it was an attic setting, above in the farmhouse, growing colder and warmer as the tension changed.
I think you can already tell, this is a fabulous production of a great play. Despite its length, I wasn’t bored for a second. One cannot help but be gripped by the uncontrollable chaos that sweeps the town of Salem and its residents. Both the acting and staging are superb, heightening the tension to an almost unbearable pitch, with the tragic ending leaving you wanting more. If you can possibly get tickets, I urge you to go! You will not be disappointed.
The Crucible at the Old Vic Theatre: 5/5 stars