FringeReview UK 2024
A valuable corrective to anticipate both real events and Arthur Miller’s take on Abigail Williams, the near 100 minutes of this play are absorbing if not entirely satisfying. The epiphany at the end is ambiguous, and crucial scene lacks perhaps sheer desperation – which it needs to power the precise point at which Miller’s work starts. Tightening that up would transform Monahan’s play.
Written by Talene Monahan and Directed by Anna Ryder, Designer Natalie Johnson, Lighting Laura Howard, Sound Designer Bella Kear, Stage Manager Honor Klein Fight Director Enric Ortuno
PR David Burns, Marketing/Production Photography Bill Knight, Programme Design Ciaran Walsh at CIWA, Producer Footprints Festival.
The Good John Proctor received its World Premiere in February 2023 at the Connelly Theatre, New York.
Special thanks to Unity Trust, London Irish Centre, Brian Brady, Philip and Christine Carne, David Teale, Maria Laumark, Ludmilla Freja Faverstrim, David Gregory, Esalan Gates, Mille Gaston.
Till January 27th
There’s been a fascinating slew of U.S. feminist rewrites of Arthur Miller recently. Several riff on Death of a Salesman, but his 1953 The Crucible inspires even more.
Writer/actor Talene Monahan’s The Good John Proctor, directed by Anna Ryder opens the Jermyn Street Theatre Footprints Festival till January 27th, after its 2023 Connelly Theatre, New York premiere.
Set in 1691, a year before the events of The Crucible, this four-hander charts in particular Abigail Williams’ burgeoning awareness: both of her power and powerlessness.
It’s then appearing alongside Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem and Kimberly Belflower’s John Proctor Is the Villain at Boston’s Huntingdon in February.
All three have absorbed Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 which underscores just how young Abigail Williams (played by Anna Fordham) and her cousin were – which Miller acknowledged but underestimated. Williams was 11, Betty Parris (Sabrina Wu) nine, whereas Mercy Lewis (Amber Sylvia Edwards) was 14 and Mary Warren (Lydia Larson) 18.
Knowing this tilts the childhood dynamics Monahan emphasises: the sheer difference between Abigail and the child Betty, yet also the intimacy and gentlesness. It further suggests Abigail’s natural dominance even on occasion with Mercy, two years and more her senior.
But Abigail as Mercy notes, starts early in many things, including her burgeoning sexuality. Monahan’s language both invokes Miler and late 17th century (especially Mary Warren) but is peppered with demotics and basically contemporary. “OK” “chill” even “hit you up” keeps the often lyrical language airborne.
Much of the action churns round Fordham and Wu churning butter, which they take elicit smacks from, sleeping “snuggled” and the childlike King/Peasant games which shift as Abigail is early put out to work, for the Proctors. Despite the title, his name’s never mentioned, except half of it: “Shh we don’t speak his name” Mercy’s told later.
Sheer boredom, the repetition and sleep patterns underscore how anyone – especially girls on the brink of their teens – would want to spice their lives up.
With Abigail sometimes absent, we’re introduced to Mercy, older, more sexually aware (she’s able to reassure Abigail about blood) but also salaciously – and genuinely as we find – obsessed with sin and the devil seducing half the women. Edwards delights in rasping and smiling Mercy’s knowingness, her rumour-milling mouth inserting her own devilled projections.
Gradually the dynamics that power The Crucible emerge, literally plucked from the air in the way settler communities othered outsiders, created boundaries (here “the woods”) beyond which the devil lurked. Poppet dolls are invoked and played with. Mercy though knows devils possessed her flesh when a child; her experiences contrast with Abigail’s more affirmative ones, clearly the result of grooming. Knowing this, Monahan suggests, explains much.
Three of the girls have known each other long: however edgy, their relationships are set, though alters with maturity. Then older epileptic, fey but quaintly articulate Mary Warren arrives. Larson’s quintessential outsider from another community, now orphaned, is both notably more precise and florid with words, bemusing her younger friends, yet somehow distrait. Her epilepsy is of course a seeding-point in what happens next.
Larson’s visionary Mary is by turns vulnerable and above it all. Literally, as after the main events she comes on to recount her various incarnations as a dew drop and finally the actor in front of us. It’s a trope Monahan’s used before, and sets Mary apart, though functions more as an ante-epilogue than dramatically.
The epilogue when it comes is a late encounter between visiting Mercy and Betty. After a stand-off where Mercy acknowledges the innocent also died, we learn Mercy’s obsessed by what’s happened to Abigail. Records infamously assert she died a prostitute in Boston. But there’s something Betty’s not saying.
Natalie Johnson’s design suggests gables against a dark blue interior, a bed, the churns and chest where hide-and-seek’s played. Those gables are patterned to be as repetitive as sheer boredom stretching forever, as do the near-uniform clothes with neat caps.
It’s Laura Howard’s lighting that flashes a day-change and invokes everything down to rituals and visions, ending in a haloed moment in red. It lifts the production values further, as does Bella Kear’s sound, whistles and choral voices susurrating the opening; with noises off spooking desolate wastes outside Salem. There’s one murderous moment in Enric Ortuno’s fight direction.
Exemplary performances all round, where Fordham’s absence is as notable for creating as much tension as when they appear, yearning for a transcendence they can only realise sexually, fleetingly. Where Larson accentuates a linguistic and slow rhythmic difference, the quick vulnerable Betty in Wu’s hands matures as notably as a sharp rational person ready for the 18th century; whereas Edwards scarcely relents in verbal winks of malice.
Monahan’s known for other takes on canonic playwrights: her recent Covid-inspired plague-spotted work Jane Anger fuses the eponymous early feminist with Shakespeare, busy ‘plagiarising’ sources for King Lear and disconcerted by a former lover needing his imprimatur for her pamphlet.
A valuable corrective to anticipate both real events and Miller’s take on Abigail Williams, the near 100 minutes of this play are absorbing if not entirely satisfying. The epiphany at the end is ambiguous, the crucial scene lacks perhaps sheer desperation – which it needs to power the precise point at which Miller’s work starts. Tightening that up would transform Monahan’s play.