The Crucible: NT Live

The National Theatre, London’s latest version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Extremely stylised — we’re sort of in 1940s-ish Mennonite territory in terms of costume. There is also rain (on stage!) a dramatic use of bright overhead light frames, extremely minimalist staging and we really get the sense of an enclosed, fragile community under threat. From what or whom?

There is no sense of the 17th century here; but a choral and female voiced soundtrack gives the sense of ever present female voices about to break out. Unlike other productions too the girls are secretly present in other senses, a malevolent and watchful present. We also get a sense of the girls as labour as they work within adult households, seen and not heard; vulnerable to adult emotions and choices, or where they are cherished within their families — if there is enough wealth, or health.

We being in a church service (sort of Amish/Quakerish) — everyone is doing as they should, making a dutiful and worshipful action led from the front by their minister, and yet all is not well. Two of the girls are having a chat at the back, one gets a slap as a rebuke against this wrong behaviour. This is a sign of things to come — what happens in public isn’t necessarily a reflection of the private. Comparing to the McCarthy Communist expose of the time, Miller questions how much the state should intrude into private lives and what character actually is, who decides what is right and true?

All is not well in the recently established religious community of Salem, Massachusetts, early colonial America. Reverend Parris (Nick Fletcher) wants to assert his position, but suddenly his daughter Betty is ill and won’t wake up. She’s been rumoured to have been seen ‘flying’. He suspects that his relative Abigail Williams (Erin Doherty) has been misbehaving in the woods and has something to do with this. He saw something — a naked girl running away. She denies this vehemently and obediently takes the guest’s coats and cloaks and serves, listening all the while, behind the scenes. Left to watch over Betty Parris, Abigail threatens her and the girls with pointy reckonings if they spill the truth of what went on to the adults. It seems that a similar thing has happened to another young girl at the same time — her carer has administered a hearty slap, which made her sneeze. Ironically this carer is named Mercy Lewis (Anushka Chakravarti). The Nurses, Coreys and Putnams arrive to see what they can do: Ann Putnam (Zoë Aldrich) is incredibly distressed as she has lost seven children already and now this, her only remaining child, her precious daughter is ailing. Surely it must be something outside themselves, be caused by something or someone?

The voice of prayerful calm and faithful reason in all this is Rebecca Nurse who calms Betty and is mother and grandmother to many. She doesn’t seek witches but knows her teens — we adults just need to stay calm and stand still, teenage girls always run wild a while. Essentially she blames puberty, growing pains and hormones. Sadly no-one listens to her.

And Abigail Williams may be a witch for all we know. She has had an affair with John Proctor, a local farmer, been turned out the house by his wife, Elizabeth, acquired a mysterious bad reputation amongst local good wives and caused the girls to dance naked and Tituba (Sophia Brown), her uncle Parris’s enslaved servant from Barbados, to conjure deadly spells to kill Elizabeth Proctor. She may even have drunk blood as part of the conjuring. Reverend Parris came upon them, saw more than he’s letting on and like everyone else is trying to hide and cover over the secrets which could explode his carefully crafted image and social prestige apart, and bring heaps of social shame upon them all. Betty too saw what Abigail did and is traumatised, wanting to ‘fly’ away to her dead mother. In this production we don’t get so much of Betty’s dramatic, dream-filled flying as the girls themselves — they are suddenly visible and heard, and their leader is full of murderous revenge. Having seen her parents murdered in their sleep by indigenous people, who knows what she could re-enact?

Unfairly the whole group turn on Tituba and blame her for it all, driven by Abigail trying to pass the blame. This literal find the witch hunt is driven by the arrival of Reverend Hale (Fisayo Akinade) who brings with him his book to detect witches. His kind and quiet tenderness to Tituba leads her to ‘confess’ under the pressure of threat to her life — she states that the Devil bid her kill Reverend Parris and she didn’t, hinting that just as he’s cruel to people just as he’s bad with children. Seeking ‘Jesus’, Tituba incriminates several local women along the way to save herself — which doesn’t work as she and they are arrested and tried as witches. Having blamed Tituba initially, Abigail Williams sees a good thing and jumps in on the action, seizing the attention and power back — suddenly she and all the girls have power and authority and start naming names. And what a power there is in a name. Giles Corey wants to know why his wife is reading hidden books (perhaps the witch finder could get to the root of this too?) Suddenly a doll placed in a house can be a suspicious object and evidence of criminal, even murderous intent.

Mary Warren (Rachelle Diedericks) is now required by the court to give evidence and verdicts and determine guilt or innocence, and feebly tries to assert herself against John Proctor (Brendan Cowell), whilst offering his wife Elizabeth (Eileen Walsh) a poppet (doll) she made. All is tense between the Proctors — the production seriously over-eggs the patriarchy and hierarchy here — with slapping and threats of a belting with a huge buckled belt. Tenderly John Proctor is seen setting the table with flowers and seasoning a stew, only for his wife to come in, serve him food, watch him eat whilst not eating herself and then bring his cider. Wasn’t the past terrible screams this production (and aren’t men bad)? The stylised, somewhat clipped speech and extreme behaviours (Elizabeth even sits down when John tells her to) does distract from the meaning of the play. What we don’t know is that John is trying to heal his relationship with Elizabeth after committing adultery with their servant girl, Abigail Williams, who they now avoid seeing by attending church less! and for whom it seems, John still harbours feelings. On the outskirts of the settlement, they only have faint rumours of what’s happening…

But something is happening and the girls are the source of the ferment. We didn’t really get the sense of the girls as judge and jury or the trials as the accused spoke facing forward and the girls were grouped in two lines with their backs to the audience. The court scenes felt a bit muddled and messy. The focus of the direction was more on the ‘possessed’ trembling and chaos created by the girls as they reacted to the accused and decided if they were guilty or innocent — all the while screaming their heads off.

The gifted poppet turns out to be a trap as embedded in its belly is a hidden needle — in the same way Abigail Williams had been stabbed in the belly with a needle. Elizabeth Proctor is arrested as a witch, taken from her home, much to John’s distress, and chained. Meantime Giles Corey (sweet Karl Johnson) arrives, his wife has been taken for a witch too — established good wives now are being taken, not just the drunken and homeless Sarah Good’s of the town. Soon they come for the voice of reason and prayerful sense, Rebecca Nurse (Tilly Tremayne). In the jail, the numbers are accelerating wildly and people are starting to be hanged. They’re coming for property as soon they have Giles Corey too. Elizabeth fears for her life as she senses that Abigail Williams seeks her death and to have her place by John’s side.

John Proctor now seeks to navigate politics by going to Ezekiel Cheever and Deputy Governor Darnforth (who speaks in a super clipped way), to get justice and stop the madness. This leads to questions of Proctor’s own reputation — why doesn’t he come to church more? (He who built the church and put the doors in place? Why hasn’t his last child been christened? What does he have against the church gold candlestick fund or Reverend Parris?) Giles Corey is great at litigation and with John gets a petition going. John also insists that Mary Warren tell the truth: John Steinbeck-like we see them praying wildly on a stormy floor as they prepare to go to court and reveal who Abigail Williams really is.

Giles great Justice Hathorne (Henry Everett) like an old friend, he’s had success in the small claims courts with his father. The girls proceed to howl against Mary, claiming she has transformed herself into a sharp taloned bird against them, who in turn becomes more and more fearful and faltering until she sadly buckles and declares that she sees the ‘light’ and joins Abigail again. John Proctor stands against Abigail and declares their sin publicly. Abigail seeks to use her witch declaiming power against the Judge and Governor, and is slapped down — she sees it’s time to flee as so many have already been punished as alleged witches and she’s hit the social hierarchy now.

Time passes and everyone is under pressure to confess to save their lives as the accused continue to die and the jails heave with the condemned. Hale has realised his mistake and is agonisingly seeking to pray with the condemned to make amends. Who is left to stand against injustice and lies, the play asks us? John Proctor is brought out to confess and sign — he is willing to confess to pretty much anything, but the public display of his signed confession on the church door is too much. To take his name too. In the background, Rebecca Nurse kindly stands firm and clings to the truth. Elizabeth lives due to being pregnant — a real pregnancy, unlike one ‘found’ on an aged, unmarried woman previously! Unlike other productions, the distortion of truth and law was less of a focus and so we lost some of the drama and sadness of the accused being taken off to die. The Proctors were separated, grubby and chained — sometimes you actually see the ‘hangings’ the wretched waste of life by the state. Here darkness descended and the girls acting as the chorus, at beginning and end, explained how eventually recompense was given and some justice given, much later on.

Equally the focus on giving the girls ‘voice’ vs the patriarchy lost the heroism in the choices of John Proctor, who eventually as to choose what truth is and how to make his stand. Here he came across as a violent bully and the love and relationship, particularly at the end between himself and his reconciled Elizabeth was never fully explored nor convincing — Elizabeth seemed full of nervous twitches. But perhaps as well she might when something wicked this way comes… Poor Giles Corey’s brave end was a throw-away line almost.

Although Abigail Williams was causing havoc, I did feel some pity for her as she was a young girl used and now obsessed with an older man who had rejected her. Maybe he had awakened power cravings in her by using her when his wife was sick. But now she was wildly misusing her voice and power to get back at everyone, the whole adult community — only meeting her match in the Governor. Potentially unstoppable...

The best thing about this production was Sophia Brown who actually created a believable and restored Tituba, who was less of a cypher and stereotype and more of an actual person, utterly highlighting the horrible hierarchy within this community. Unsure of the quiet, one noteness of Hale to begin with (almost flat), he exploded with emotional impact in the second half of the play — the clipped mannered acting of much of the cast did create lag at times. Not to mention clashing wildly with the naturalism of Giles Corey and Rebecca Nurse’s performances. There was also much to enjoy in Reverend Parris here who was a total villain from the beginning — power and status hungry, getting the deeds to his house, demanding gold candle sticks, money, using his pulpit to build up his own position and whose greatest loss was having £31 stolen from his strong box by Abigail Williams, not the deaths he’d assisted in. But with the focus on visible women, voice and social chaos, the opportunity to review the use and misuse of faith and belief was missed; clearly no-one involved in this has listened to the Mars Hill expose or other recent cases of spiritual abuse and misuse of power and authority. The question of faith — what and who do we place our faith in, and can they be relied upon, trusted — wasn’t really asked in this production (although it was fairly obvious where Parris’s worship was directed!) Nor was the idea that if you are creating Heaven on Earth which turns out to be another corrupt Eden, what that does to you and your community, your faith, how you express that belief?

As movements and issues come and go, what, the play asks us to consider, kind of society are we creating and who decides? Unsettlingly in this production, by using the girls as a visible, watchful spiritual element throughout and as opening and concluding chorus, somehow they appeared to have triumphed.



By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....

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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....