The Old Vic’s in-the-round production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” surely does burn hot, distilling this story of hysteria, deceit and vengeance into a performance that scorches the audience. Miller’s play focuses on the events in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, creating a scathing commentary on the McCarthy trials of the 1950s. The inevitability of Proctor’s downfall is startling, as Miller held his audience in suspense throughout, dropping subtle hints of the vengeful heart of a young woman, combined with the misplaced doubt of Proctor’s wife, leading us to the realisation that Proctor’s belief in goodness and reputation is so deep that he chooses the noose so as to keep his name.
Let me be honest with you at this point – I am a fan of Richard Armitage (and my previous post illustrates this quite clearly), and I bought tickets to see this because he was cast as John Proctor. As the production opened and the reviews started pouring in – five-star review after five-star review – I was worried that people were hoping to see a great performance and that they had forced themselves to see it. Thankfully, “The Crucible” cast has earned every last star attributed.
Armitage crafted a role of depth and dignity as Proctor, presenting this strong but flawed man in a performance that was approaching perfection. Jack Ellis as Danforth was the immovable object onstage, embodying how belief can become dogmatic and inflexible with a skill that left the audience despising him, though still hoping that he might see reason. Samantha Colley as Abigail Williams – in her first professional theatre role – brought explosive energy to the role, chasing Proctor to make him hers once more. Colley’s stage presence matches Armitage’s, and her portrayal of Abigail was chilling, as the girl is rebuffed and cast aside, which turns her anger into fuel for vengeance. Adrian Schiller as Reverend Hale brought this character to his redemption without hypocrisy, highlighting the regret Hale has for his part in the hysteria that grips the community. The domestic scene of Proctor and Elizabeth hummed with tension as the ghost of Abigail seemed to linger between them, forcing Elizabeth to keep her husband at arm’s length. Anna Madeley delivered a delicate performance, showing both tenderness and steel as Elizabeth Proctor, as well as presenting the fragility of a woman recuperating from illness and heartache.
The runaway performance of the night came from Natalie Gavin as Mary Warren. At times, timid and fearful, at times, rebellious and strong, Gavin balanced the tearing conflict of emotion and loyalty felt by Mary with professional skill, and fulfilled Elizabeth’s summary of Mary: “It is a mouse no more.”
Yael Farber’s direction used the in-the-round stage to create her own crucible for the performance, as the play bubbled over the fire of tension throughout. This play could have sunk to mere talking heads, but Farber’s staging and vision created a dynamic piece of theatre. With part of the audience filling the fringes of the stage space around the actors, there was a risk of the players becoming mere mortals treading the stage. The talent, skill and trust in each other displayed by this entire cast built a performance of giants, as each actor filled the space and became – for a little while at least – something more than human.
The intensity of this production will remain with me for many years, and will be my measure for all future productions of “The Crucible”.
‘The Crucible’ continues at The Old Vic, London, until 13 Sept 2014. Most performances are sold out, though return tickets occasionally become available on the day.