“We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”
This classic play marks 100 years since the birth of its playwright Arthur Miller by returning to the stage of its 1954 British première (its true première was a year earlier, on Broadway). Directed by Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, the production is largely traditional, with a few unusual twists. The cast gathers faces familiar to the Bristol stage with those from farther afield, but there are no star names, which is to its credit. This play works well as an ensemble, allowing each character’s importance to the story be highlighted in turn.
The Crucible is famously a retelling of the historic witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693, while also being an analogy of Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities. This parallel is so well known that the Second Red Scare is also colloquially called the McCarthy Witch Hunt, but that doesn’t mean the play is now only of historic interest. As long as there are humans there will be lies, scapegoats, extremism, fear of the unknown and all the other themes of this tale.
The scenery is largely simple – wooden benches, wooden window frames lowered in different positions to represent different buildings, while a row of trees along the back of the stage represent the woods key to the background of the story – but one addition makes it unusual. A select portion of the audience are seated on-stage, in big wooden jury benches. I am curious how well the play worked for those people as, apart from giving their bows at the end, the cast did not often face them. But it was very effective from the rest of the theatre to have that body of people apparently sitting in judgement.
The cast are for the most part excellent, giving nuanced performances that really illustrate how normal everyday human beings could bring themselves and their neighbours to catastrophe with a combination of ill judgement, jealousy, greed and plain bad luck. Rona Morrison as Abigail Williams, the catalyst for the proceedings, is initially sympathetic – a lovelorn teenager whose persuasive powers over her friends could easily mean she has persuaded herself of her own lies. Less immediately impressive was Jude Akuwudike as Reverend Parris, as in his early scenes he was over-enunciating and even stumbled over several lines, jolting me out of the suspension of reality that is so important to live theatre. This contrasted greatly with the much more natural and soft-spoken performance of Kika Markham as Rebecca Nurse, the pious old woman whose accusation represents the moment that the witch hunt has reached hysterical proportion.
Such contrasts as originally written work well of course. The quiet scenes between Dean Lennox Kelly and Neve McIntosh as John and Elizabeth Proctor, a couple trying to move on from a bump in their marriage, were gently moving, whereas the wild machinations of “the girls” throwing fits in court were moving in a frightening, even terrifying, way.
From the opening eerie chanting, to the sudden and dramatic close as two main characters are about to be hanged, this is a powerful, unsettling show that does Bristol Old Vic proud.