FringeReview UK 2018
Identity Theatre Company’s production of The Crucible
is directed by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook – he’s responsible for graphics too as well as sound design, operated by Beverley Grover. Andrew Wesby’s set also acknowledges Martin Oakley and Southwick Players props. BOAT’s lighting becomes increasingly important through the evening. Gladrags and some company members (notably Charley Roberts) are responsible for lending a properly colour-coded costume clarity to the performances. Conor Baum directs the coven movement. Till September 1st.
BOAT’s coruscating smorgasbord this year has thrown up many touring productions, comedy shorts and a few returning performing companies, like Identity Theatre Company, whose Blue Remembered Hills was a stand-out last year. Directed by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook, this is too: strongly-conceived, well-edited and mostly well-acted with stand-outs: don’t miss it.
2018’s brought one of the most ambitious, devastating and difficult 20th century plays to the open air: Arthur Miller’s 1953 The Crucible responds to the MacCarthyite witch hunts with an obvious resonance now. As here it gains by being played straight in period, the 1692 Salem witch trials.
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. BOAT’s lighting becomes increasingly important through the evening, but it’s a triumph of blocking from the start by Conor Baum (who also acts); he directs the coven movement, in the girls’ wild dances.
Gary Cook’s graphics work very well, though the three blackboards continually scrawled on upstage are indistinguishable: the symbolism doesn’t quite come across. Cook’s responsible as well for sound design, operated by Beverley Grover.
Some of this is striking, dark, percussion-touched and menacing. There’s an intriguing use of vocal harmony as it might have been heard in the period, but instead of being sung (a tall ask) it’s played over the tannoys at the crucial single meeting between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. There’s good material here, well-used; though a bit disastrously once or twice.
Straight away it’s evident the period costumes have been chosen with identification in mind. The Rev Parris is fiery red, Hale blue and so on. Gladrags and some company members (notably Charley Roberts) are responsible for lending a properly colour-coded costume clarity to the performances. Andrew Wesby apart from acting also designs the set with thanks to Martin Oakley. There’s a small crucible of incense, someone suggesting it harked back to the 1970s Young Vic! It’s a clear space with Southwick Players props used sparingly.
It doesn’t help that Betty Parris (the excellent Heloise Bliss) is one of them, daughter of bullish despised local minister Parris lying ill after their antics are discovered. Her cousin, Rosanna Bini’s explosively-voiced if sexually un-flirty Abigail Williams, chief instigator is hectored by Parris – Conor Baum’s bellow is impressive though he takes a while to modulate it. He’s physically a little awkward, but in an open air space his clarity and projection’s welcome. Baum captures the fright if not quite the gravitas of a more seasoned minister. Nevertheless he helps anchor the rationale of this intricate, twisting play.
Bini has presence and volume – again necessary and a good reason for being so cast. She lacks though the darkly-abused sexiness Abigial needs. We can’t quite believe the man she wants to marry would fall for someone who uses no clever guile, no dangerous seduction. Andy Bell’s John Proctor almost leans in to being seduced again, and that has to be so: here it seems a fallow lust.
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 (Sarah Jeanpierre): 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. Then Williams catches it: a chain-reaction.
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. Is Tituba Betty’s mother? In some productions it could be the case. Or if young, another unacknowledged daughter. Miller and this production leaves this tantalisingly open. Pierre’s convincing, in fact gains in stature – in this production her finest scenes are the court ones.
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 too often here though pace can drag with one or two scenes and actors.
We’re also introduced to Jonathan Howlett’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. Howlett’s initially quiet Hale is shrewdly judged; in the face of (vocally) 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. Howlett builds formidably, first meeting the Proctors when ‘naming’ falls on them with neighbours already arrested. Though still timorous, occasionally holding back till almost the end, his volte-face and defence against senior judges is recklessly courageous; his language explodes to the point of damnation. Howlett’s performance anchors the voices of reason.
Graham Hammett’s Judge Danforth should have proved the crucial darkness. Hammett’s rapid-fire, hectoring Danforth is more an anxious badgerer than an icy force, though certainly active (‘under his eye’ enjoys a new lease here). He eyeballs everyone that they’re either with the court or against it recalling more recent powerful Americans. That’s an advantage. Danforth’s an Everest of toatalising hellfire. He touches evil in the face of Hale’s reasonable and finally impassioned evidence. Very very few can manage this; Hammett’s youthful vocal range is a little cruelly exposed. He lacks the chilling weight of stillness some have brought. Like Baum, though more crucially, he lacks gravitas.
This production rightly speeds all protagonists so speech against the stark backdrop seem laser-points thronging the air.
Elizabeth Proctor, the ‘cold’ wife who fears her sexual reticence has let lust in, is conflicted, layered and warmly unseasoned in Bea Mitchell-Turner’s quietly riveting performance. Her hurt is palpable. It’s unfair too; she deems herself plain and unattractive and clearly, painfully states he lack of sexual confidence. She soon expects a fourth child, nearly died of the third. Bini’s Abigail hangs between them; she’s been repudiated by John Proctor.
Mitchell-Turner builds up as she’s successively stripped of the good wife’s outer clothing, finally appearing with more and more moral authority as she’s painfully stripped down to a shift, barefoot on a chilly night. Mitchell-Turner’s voice builds from veiled anxiety to naked conflicted truth, lying to save her husband, mute when not wanting to admit the terrible: that she’d never lie to save herself.
Andy Bell’s gradually towering performance is the cornerstone of this production, and his scenes with Mitchell-Turner the vbest of all, as it should be. Vocally he’s superb, and his commanding physical presence is sparingly used. Whether in threatening Mary Warren (beatings to servants ripple uneasily throughout), or defending his wife against captors, or finally in court. Or whether seen briefly repudiating the brief affair with Abigail too, 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. Bell corners the action and when he enters things quicken.
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 Bell’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. If his explosive delivery of the whole speech (not just the opening lines) might be deemed too intense by some purists, I didn’t think so. It nailed the evening. Bell defines this role in a way few have.
Nancy Wesby’s put-upon maid Mary Warren is superb. She manages both vocal clarity, her own brief authority, and moves convincingly in the court scenes as much as when she’s being chased by a furious Proctor. She and Bliss seem very slightly under-cast here and like many in the cast we’ll doubtless see more of them.
Kate Stoner takes aged Rebecca Nurse with believable aplomb, blending moral firmness of voice amidst the octogenarian’s physical frailty.
Andrew Wesby’s Giles Corey looks and speaks in oaken certitude and adds a bewilderment that in all his prior experience of the law he’s never known that admitting his wife reads books is enough to see her hanged; or himself crushed to death for refusing to plead.
The hapless Ezekiel Cheever, always incriminating Proctor from cowardice is well-etched by Kuba Pabiniak. Jacqueline Harper’s Judge Hathorne, designed as a menacing second to Danforth, comes across as more counsel than prosecutor: since Hathorne must know her place. Her more vicious role as accusing Ruth Putnam starts off a little lacking in vocal authority, but really comes into her own at the trial.
There’s good work from Katie Marshal in the vignette role of Susanna Walcott, and Chris Sloman’s Thomas Putnam – the family who stand to gain by the trials. Here Debbie Creissent’s Ann Putnam certainly looks the menacing part with her accusations, and there’s strong work from Charley Roberts as Abigail Williams’ No. 2 Mercy Lewis. The orchestrated ‘hysteria’ is strong here. One outstanding thing about the flawed Old Vic 2014 production was the elemental danger this can throw up, making you think, as one director expressed it, that perhaps there really was possession intended by Miller; or that he’d tapped beyond his own rationalism to something else. Here though it’s beautifully blocked with increasing help from the lighting.
This masterpiece of courageous refusal gets a rivetingly fine production, and several superb performances. Bell and Mitchell-Turner are certainly not the only reason to see it, but their energy radiates through a superbly lucid, passionately argued production.