National Theatre, Olivier – 5 November 2022
This is the big one. It’s the National Theatre at its strongest: unapologetic, classic, unsparing, gripping, impassioned. Here’s the heavy artillery, intellectual and dramatic, a big ensemble on a bare stage conjuring – in Es Devlin’s moody set – an illimitable blackness beyond. Hell and hysteria rage and choke and howl out across the centuries with all the power of irrationality.
It was in response to the McCarthy witch-hunt for Communists that Arthur Miller re-created the still deeper savagery of 17c Puritan settlements in Massachusetts where hundreds were denounced and hanged (there’s an extra fascination if you have been reading Robert Harris’ new novel Act of Oblivion, set in just those towns: a tight anxious theocracy on the edge of a new-world wilderness).
But because Miller dug so deep into the human question of how-and-why such murderous groupthink emerges, and how heroic are its defiers, the play strikes to the heart of every cultural era. Certainly ours. When Matthew Marsh’s preposterously pompous judge says it is a time for “precision” – for black and white without nuance, when death sentences are passed on the slightest evidence or jesting word, it is impossible not to think of our “terf” wars. When a hardscrabble little town, at odds over bits of land or sales of pigs, suddenly blows its social grievances into willing violence we think of the Capitol riot. When religious authority falls with lascivious horror on innocents, we are alongside the morality-police of Iran or Saudi.
The hysteria here is of course the girl-children’s, led by Erin Doherty’s hard-edged passionate jilted Abigail. For this play to reach its full power onstage we need to believe how infectious and how frightening, is girls’ mass hysteria. The big ensemble in print frocks achieve this: demure rows sitting quietly, sometimes half-seen or heard chanting in the dimness upstage, suddenly explode in terrifying seizures and screams.
Arditti’s sound throughout is astonishingly effective. But more subtly, we see the power of a more apparently dignified group-think from the men, eager to spot Satan however much reason and law must be twisted to do so, and aware of pleasing their superiors by doing so. Fisayo Akinade is marvellous as the Rev.Hale, at first a prim-little-trim-little bureaucrat, totally onboard with the program, then doubtful; then pleading, then ashamed, finally growing as he signs death sentences into a horrified disowning of the whole hideous court.
But all Lyndsey Turner’s cast rise to the immensity of the play and it’s hard to pick names. Though Brendan Cowell as flawed, brave Proctor and Eileen Walsh as his sober, pinafored Elizabeth enact to heartbreak one of the greatest grimmest love stories of the stage; Karl Johnson as poor decent old farmer Giles is unforgettable, and so is Rachelle Diedericks’ Mary, a proud little bundle of naivete and self-importance, growing into loyalty and confrontational courage and increasing terror, finally crushed by the hysteric power of Abigail’s girl-gang’. Magnificent.
boxoffice http://www.nationaltheatre org uk to 5 nov