FringeReview UK 2017
The Crucible arrives at Theatre Royal Brighton on tour from its originating Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Involving Selladoor Productions and other theatrical partners it’s a brave, self-evidently timely and immensely satisfying production. Douglas Rintoul’s taut and – crucially – fast-paced production features Anouk Schiltz set of vertical sliding walls slowly deconstructing, Chris Davy’s lighting bled from realism to symbolism in lemon-yellow. Adrienne Quartly’s sound with thumping piano portends echt-Shostakovich. It’s as if in this 1953 play on a 1692 incident costume supervisor Lydia Hardiman wants to suggest both periods in dress.
Douglas Rintoul’s taut and – crucially – fast-paced The Crucible arrives at Theatre Royal Brighton on tour from its originating Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Involving Selladoor Productions and other theatrical partners it’s a brave, self-evidently timely and immensely satisfying production.
Anouk Schiltz’s set of vertical sliding walls slowly deconstructs from the upper room and bed, through a sketched-in kitchen, a court already opening out to a stark prison space. Chris Davy’s lighting bleeds from realism to symbolism in lemon-yellow. Brechtian use of Miller’s directions as surtitles is useful signposting early with Rintoul’s pace, only occasionally redundant. Adrienne Quartly’s sound with thumping piano portends echt-Shostakovich, whose portrayals of oppression are apposite enough. It’s as if in this 1953 play on a 1692 incident costume supervisor Lydia Hardiman wants to suggest both periods in dress, with mid-century suits, indefinable period dresses, and a puritan dress code. This climaxes in the court room, when in 1953 testifying or (like Miller) not against former communists called on a very special heroism.
What starts as girls covering their illicit naked-dancing tracks by claiming they’re victims of witchcraft, not dallying with it, escalates to the Salem Witch Trials and mass hangings. It doesn’t help that Betty Parris (Leona Allen) is one of them, daughter of bullish despised local minister Parris lying ill after their antics are discovered. Her cousin, Lucy Kierl’s sexually self-possessed but un-flirty Abigail Williams, chief instigator is hectored by Parris – Cornelius Clarke’s bellow is impressive though he takes a while to modulate it.
It’s important to see that Williams holds out for some time against accusations of witchcraft, attempting rational responses. This happens several times, for instance in reverse with serving-girl Mary Warren and more rapidly with Barbados-folk-infused Tituba (Diana Kekeni): confess or hang. It’s the culture and Parris’ vicious righteousness that turns witnesses. The same happens when their friend slave Tituba is cornered into admitting practices. Parris ‘acquired’ Tituba in Barbados just as he seems to have married there; it’s a clever underlying point of this production to bring out sexual as well as racial hypocrisy in the treatments of Tituba and Betty.
Like all acts this one speeds with a velocity of storytelling and clarity of political motive that makes it riveting. Miller’s text is wordy and as a 2014 production at the Old Vic showed, can suffer longeurs. Not here.
We’re also introduced to Charlie Condou’s Reverend Hale replete with books, convinced of spectral evidence of witchcraft – spirits invisible otherwise. This was against the law and soon nullified, as indeed Hale himself travels from certainty to complete reversal through contact with greater moral stature than himself: a man whose wife’s accused. Condou’s initially underwhelming Hale is shrewdly judged; in the face of bull-necked time-servers like Parris attracted by land-grab as motive for persecution, Hale’s authority is continually on trial, from frail book-learning to fragile decency he tests himself as much as the ground; his risk-taking’s the more earned. Condou builds formidably, first meeting the Proctors when ‘naming’ falls on them with neighbours already arrested. His volte-face and defence against senior judges is recklessly courageous; his language explodes to the point of damnation.
Jonathan Tafler’s Judge Danforth should have proved the crucial darkness. Tafler’s rapid-fire, incisive and hectoring Danforth is certainly impressive, eyeballing everyone that they’re either with the court or against it recalling more recent powerful Americans. He only lacks the chilling weight of stillness some have brought. This production rightly speeds all protagonists so speech against the stark backdrop seem laser-points thronging the air. Tafler’s savage, if not terrifying, Perhaps he could have been given more time, but it’s a tiny quibble.
Elizabeth Proctor, the ‘cold’ wife who fears her sexual reticence has let lust in, is conflicted, layered and warmly unseasoned in Victoria Yeates’ performance. Her hurt, from the rabbit her husband quietly seasons (sexual metaphor) as she never manages it, is palpable. It’s unfair too. She soon expects a fourth child, nearly died of the third. Keirl’s sexually confident Abigail hangs between them; she’s been repudiated by John Proctor. Eoin Slattery’s gradually towering performance is the cornerstone of this production. Whether seen briefly repudiating the brief affair with Abigail, ungallantly by today’s standards, or answering tenderness from his wife (though a kiss is rejected), he’s centred in self-worth scalloped by self-doubt.
Ultimately the whole trial rides on whether his self-outing of being a ‘lecher’ and besmirching his own name by owning to his affair (thus damning Abigail, chief witness) can be supported by his famously truthful wife whose throwing-out of Abigail decided the latter to have her killed and supplant her. It also rides finally when the trial itself’s beleaguered, in getting one person to save themselves by confessing and thus saving the trial: twelve already hanged. Admission of wrong-doing’s not an option. Proctor’s decision and Slattery’s delivery of his great lines: ‘Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!’ rings down this supreme testament to honesty – to bear false witness and incriminate others to save oneself – in the face of tyranny. Slattery defines this role in a way very few have.
Augustina Seymour’s double role as put-upon maid Mary Warren and aged Rebecca Nurse is a fine character contrast. David Delve’s Giles Corey looks and speaks in oaken certitude, as does Paul Beech’s Francis Nurse in a more agonized vein; the hapless Ezekiel Cheever, always incriminating Proctor from cowardice is well-etched by David Kirbridge, and Patrick McKenzie’s Judge Hathorne is a menacing second to Danforth.
This masterpiece of courageous refusal gets one of its finest performances in recent memory. Slattery’s not the only reason to see it, but his energy radiates through a superbly lucid, passionately argued production.