Royal Exchange, Manchester until 24 October 2015
Inspired by the Salem witch hunts of the seventeenth century, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible offered a commentary on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee when it first premiered in 1953 on Broadway. Now, playing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange it is remarkable how much these themes still resonate loudly within our society today. Aside from modern-day witch hunts on social media for the latest shamed celebrity or the fear of terrorism and National Security, The Crucible also raises ideas surrounding the cuts to Legal Aid and those perceived as vulnerable, having to represent themselves in court.
Director Caroline Steinbeis has set the story somewhere in the UK, at no particular time in history and the characters talk with a range of different accents – it all makes for an ominous atmosphere and a strong sense of displacement. The heptagon stage is stark, the action punctuated by Richard Hammarton’s unnerving, apocalyptic soundscape.
The female cast wear long, loose-fitting dresses buttoned up to the neck, to cloak their sexuality – the first time we see them they are sprinting across the performance space to reach the woods where they will dance naked. ‘Naked’ – Reverend Samuel Parris can barely spit out the word. Donning their denim and smart suits, the men in this town are terrified by women.
The cast of nineteen are so universally strong that it feels like a masterclass in acting – Jonjo O’Neill gives a stand out performance as John Proctor supported by his wife Elizabeth Proctor, admirably played by Matti Houghton. Ria Zmitrowicz shines as troubled and scared Mary Warren and Tim Steed gives a fully realised performance as the honest academic Reverend John Hale; Sam Cox also gives a noteworthy performance, balancing intensity with wit, as the courageous Giles Corey.
Max Jones’ clever set design sees the shallow bowl-like set symbolically filled with water for the final act. The sound of thunder and the flash of lightning which has built throughout the play, finally catches up with the characters as the deafening storm sweeps through the theatre.
This visionary production of this Arthur Miller classic, certainly blows the cobwebs off the familiar text that I studied at secondary school. With characters that are boiled down to their core and themes that are still as relevant today as they were in the 1950’s, The Royal Exchange’s Crucible makes for a production of electrifying intensity.