Yard Theatre, London – until 11 May 2019
The Yard Theatre presents a modern production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Directed by Jay Miller, this new interpretation of The Crucible begins as a storytelling. The cast, sitting in chairs labelled with the characters names, narrate in turn, including the stage directions. The characters became more real when the narration shifts to acting; showing not telling. This was when I realised how Arthur Miller is such an astute and authentic playwright and the cast strong and talented enough to bring this magnificently disturbing play to life.
Caoilfhionn Dunne gives us a very lifelike performance as the conflicted John Proctor, whom she presents as a fully-rounded person, full of contradictions. Proctor is an intelligent hardworking man, who is not as God fearing as the Salem community would wish. Proctor is struggling to do the right thing, but like most humans he has flaws and morals. His open scepticism provides us with humour, as does the absurdity of the show trials conducted by Judge Hawthorne. Dunne’s naturalism and intensity as Proctor is so realistic that despite knowing about his adultery, he is a sympathetic character.
Emma D’Arcy excels as Elizabeth Proctor and Ann Putnam. D’Arcy’s Elizabeth is a dignified woman whom you feel is teetering on the edge. In her interactions with husband John, you witness her internal struggle when her emotions chase each other across her face. Her subtle body language also conveys her fight for self-respect, to be a good wife and for honesty. She gently, but firmly, tries to persuade John to end his sexual relationship with Abigail and to reveal Abigail’s fraudulent accusations of witchcraft and satanic rituals.
D’Arcy also plays Ann Putnam who is grieving and probably suffering from PTSD following the seven consecutive deaths of her babies at birth. In the absence of any other explanation Ann has convinced herself and her husband there is a supernatural cause; because of this belief and D’Arcy’s nuanced acting, she almost appears rational.
Nina Cassells’ Abigail Williams is fantastic as a teenage girl flexing her muscles and enjoying it; she recognises the power she is able to wield with her stories of witchcraft, which she also uses to settle old scores. Abigail is intoxicated by the attention as well as the power, this is entirely credible. She is totally amoral as she doesn’t seem to care about what she knows will be the fatal consequences of her actions. Abigail is aided and abetted by the weak-willed adults in her life who, for various reasons, are only too keen to believe her stories of witchcraft and Satanism.
Nina Cassells as Abigail Williams and Syrus Lowe as Rev Samuel Parris
Syrus Lowe is very convincing as Reverend Parris who is at first bewildered and out of his depth and then, for his own motives, becomes a zealous witch finder. Jack Holden gives us a somewhat naïve, wholesome and initially overenthusiastic Reverend John Hale, who is acting with good intentions. He later regrets having been duped and swept up in the witch hunt and desperately tries to make amends.
Jacob James Beswick is frightening as the dangerous and religiously fanatic Judge Hawthorne.
It would be so easy for his performance and that of Cassells’ to be OTT and hysterical, but they are not, they are well balanced. Cassell’s Abigail is a sly girl. Rather fleetingly you see her fear of being caught out. However Abigail uses her cunning intelligence to manipulate her victims’ fear of her, the church and judiciary. She also cleverly exploits Hawthorne’s desire to incite the denouncement of people as witches and Satanists. Various inhabitants of Salem make accusations of witchcraft for nefarious purposes and not because they believe others are witches. We also hear about and witness the emotional and personal impact of, as Miller stated, “one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history” on the community: neighbour turns against neighbour, families are split, children are orphaned and livestock and children are left to roam the village unattended.
There is a menacing atmosphere throughout the play underscored by the background music, the glimpses of witches and other techniques conveying the supernatural. However I think the cast are talented enough to portray this threat without the supernatural props; their acting is so powerful.
As The Crucible is based on the real life Salem witch hunts and trials in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, Miller is warning us of, the power of fundamentalism on communities and over the institutions of the state, including the judiciary, causing serious injustices and death. Essentially the whole play is an allegory for McCarthyism, and, as is typical of Miller’s work, there are multiple issues. This includes how women, particularly adolescent women, since the story of Eve are portrayed as evil and the source of man’s undoing. We also learn how women and girls in particular, but society in general were controlled and regulated by the fundamentalist Christian churches in seventeenth century colonial Massachusetts. It is ironic that some of these European colonists, most of whom were fleeing religious persecution from their European homelands, turned into persecutors themselves when they settled in Massachusetts.
Photos by Helen Murray
The Crucible is at The Yard Theatre 27 March to 11 May 2019