The Crucible As Dance: Scottish Ballet’s The Crucible @ Sadler’s Wells

The community of Salem prays as one, before the witchcraft accusations are unleashed

Extraordinary. Shadowy. Stretching Arthur Miller’s politically and emotionally charged play into dance. Well, Scottish Ballet have done it!

I had no idea what to expect. In this version of The Crucible we get the interior lives of the characters explored through dance and gestures, and it works well, although the choreographer is reluctant to call any judgements on their actions (as Miller does). For example, Abigail Williams (instigator of the witchcraft hysteria) is suffering PTSD and displacement following the murders of her parents — not revengeful or manipulative. (I’ve noticed the same thing in Lucy Worsley’s The Lady Killers — where a Feminist version almost dangerously excuses the murder of children by saying that Amelia Dyer by stating that others were also doing it and it reveals a wider social problem of poor working women). Morality aside — this is a powerful piece.

We start in darkness — hence no pre-performance stage set up photos here! Abigail Williams works in the farm of John and Elizabeth Proctor in 17th Century Colonial America. These are Puritans seeking religious freedom, a God governed Kingdom on Earth and a new world — ironically by increasingly depriving others of their freedom, such as the indigenous peoples already there (and their lands and language!) and Tituba (an enslaved African). Abigail sees Elizabeth with her child and sees John Proctor caring for his wife, and John Proctor sees her. In the era of #MeToo, this poses more troubling questions — she is a young, orphaned girl in the care of a married couple, clearly the married man exploits her youth and vulnerability as she offers herself to him, fantasizes about him, seeks to displace his wife. He is older, should be responsible and protective, and yet he doesn’t — they both shed their clothes and are dramatically, erotically discovered by his horrified wife in adultery. Elizabeth explodes with anger at both of them — Abigail is dismissed; the hurt and betrayal hidden between the couple (as this is a law abiding and extremely litigious community).

The scene switches to a beautiful depiction of faith in the meeting house — the people seek God, to live in equality and harmony, to seek to have His loving authority over their minds, hearts, actions and words. Not since Alvin Ailey have I seen faith and religious worship so beautifully portrayed, nor the spiritual battle so clearly shown — these are people longing to be in the light, to be a good and godly community and yet darkness lurks seeking to kill, destroy, steal, corrupt, deceive. As they seek God, can they truly trust and depend on each other? (Even with Reverend Matthew Paris’s powerful preaching and exhortations). Who is truly discerning the spiritual temperature of the community and the small, soft voice of God?

Exploiting Tituba’s vulnerability and bottom of the heap position, Abigail and other girls seek to charm and harm Elizabeth through black magic; pin stabbed poppets (dolls); to gain power and influence in a society where they are not seen or heard or listened too much, one where men and married people are first. Having shadow played with wolves lurking in the shadows against the light filled homesteads, they dance ‘naked’ in the woods, forcing Tituba to work a vengeance against Elizabeth Proctor and to win back John for Abigail. But they are discovered and flee shrieking, clutching clothes, as the Rev Matthew Paris comes across them — including his daughter Betty. She collapses unconscious — Abigail tries to bully and shake her awake, thinking that she is shamming. Tituba is more protective and caring. In such a strange thing, with Betty trying to fly, someone must be to blame. A witch, a curse, demonic influences?

Reverend Hale, an expert in witchcraft, bustles in, determined to identify and root out the evil in the midst. Betty is trying to ‘fly’ out windows to join her dead mother as she lies in the meeting house. As the seeking for the issue accelerates, we suddenly have sound in the ballet as (led by Abigail), the girls start to writhe and scream — anyone who seems to be cause is marked with red and shipped off to prison for further interrogation, examination and extermination. And yet it doesn’t stop — there are always more witches. (Again the choreographer tries to explain that Abigail and girls didn’t know how their accusations would escalate — perhaps, and yet Abigail did have knowledge of what she aimed at in seeking to curse Elizabeth — she wanted her dead and gone, to usurp her, socially and personally — shown in Abigail’s taking of Elizabeth’s shawl).

This is a community under deep stress — persecuted for their faith, far from home, in a semi-hostile environment, enduring hard work and loss (of crops, animals, children, family, barns, reserves); invading and imposing on others — seeing others as a threat and hostile; lacking familiar community ties and support, and even in their clothes, still unequal and status focused - (everyone watches everyone else). Given that they lived in a fully spiritual worldview, perhaps their conclusions are inevitable — though rather than seeking God, their outworking is to accuse, hurt and blame each other, without thinking, questioning, pausing to listen to God Himself.

Danforth, the Deputy Governor of Massachusetts has joined the proceedings — accusing neighbours, community members, rooting out the unrighteous has become big business as the girls continue to have ‘witches’ presented before them, to writhe and scream and see people jailed, awaiting execution and humiliation. Determined still to get Elizabeth, in a beautifully danced scene, Abigail teases the Proctor’s new servant girl, Mary Ann Warren, with poppet (doll) which she has stabbed with pins and persuades her to hide it in the Proctor’s house. Having done this, the house is searched under warrant and Elizabeth arrested. John Proctor explodes with protective rage — but Elizabeth (with noble dignity) allows herself to be taken as she knows herself to be innocent and trust the process, that truth and justice will out; that the court trial will be a reasonable one. Before this we see a beautiful loving duet between reconciled husband and wife — but Abigail is determined to destroy them both.

However she is very wrong — the process is more about the process than truth, justice or evidence. There is a moving moment when Elizabeth asks to be uncuffed to speak her truth; then Abigail turns on her and denounces her. Threatened with hanging, the accused prisoners hold fast to their innocence — John explodes with pleading, persuasive rage — forcing Mary Warren to write her confession about placing the poppet to save his wife and thinking that written evidence will fight the emotional hysteria.

However he has not reckoned with Abigail and the other girls — they fight back, weakening Mary and drawing her back on side, through her fear. Mary is clearly shown to be afraid of the girls and in speaking out against them in public. Desperately pleading, John publicly admits his affair with Abigail shaming her and himself — so much so that she looses her influence with the Salem girls and flees from the town.

In prison, the Proctors and the Nurses seek to reunite, but are disturbing offered a final choice, Confess, recant their truth or be executed by hanging. John explodes (sweeping over table, papers, public notices) with his truth — he struggles to recant or hold fast — even in holding fast to the truth of the situation, he is condemned to death, separated from his wife. Disturbingly the hangings are represented by kneeling figures, with hoods placed over their heads, scarlet in shame and danger. More and more Danforth is beginning to question the process, silencing the screaming girls more and more, and putting them back in their ‘place’.

The ballet ends with a light filled cross coming down over Salem — no doubt representative of the order restored when the girls accused the Governor’s lady, Lady Mary Phips of witchcraft. Overall a huge section of the community were attacked — 141 complaints in 1692, 153 remained in 1693 to be resolved. Ordinary women (and men) were subjected to invasive medical examinations to look for ‘marks’ and held in prisons where their families had to pay for their board, food and lodgings. Over 2 years over 200 people were arrested, tried, accused — 30 were found guilty, 19 hung and one pressed.

Whilst I would have liked to see more faith expressed at the end (the focus was very much on the love story), the ballet was powerfully and imaginatively performed. Whilst not exploring the spiritual so much, there’s a lot of wandering into folk magic and the monsters lurking in the dark forests; in reality this was definitely a case of social and political religion gone badly wrong, and dramatically moving away from the tenets they espoused to believe and practice (such as caring well for the widow, the old, the infirm, the economically disadvantaged, the orphan, the enslaved). Feeling insecure and persecuted (and already quarrelsome amongst themselves over rights and privileges and used to using the law to resolve these disputes); these communities exploded into persecution and othering — dramatically shown and danced by the treatment of Tituba, who is first outed as a ‘witch’ at the meeting house, but who proceeds to blame Abigail Williams, who distracts by claiming to see ghosts, witches and experience torments. Noticeably it is men who gang up on Tituba, but then the girls turn the social tables on these powerful men as they begin to accuse hundreds of witchcraft and are listened to, and believed.

Great to see Constance Devernay in her last role for Scottish Ballet too.

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