Three-and-a-half-hours engulf your soul like a black mass in this titanic, ritualistic production of Arthur Miller’s tragedy about the Salem witch trials from hot property South African director Yaël Farber. And yes, that is one heck of a running time, partly due to a clutch of wordless movement sequences Farber has inserted into the in-the-round production, most notably the audacious opening in which the entire, black-clad cast shuffle about the stage in a fug of incense like some apocalyptic rite (kudos to movement director Imogen Knight).
For the most part, Farber does nothing more revolutionary than provide Miller’s text the amount of space it needs: there’s no sense of time wasted, it’s more that every word has been considered and given its due weight, and there is a harshly beautiful ebb and flow to everything, a sense that the doom of this small Massachusetts town is closing in like clockwork. The speaking – in harsh Yorkshire accents – is painful, blunt and clear, Richard Hammarton’s unsettling string and drone-based score punctuates it perfectly, Tim Lutkin’s monochrome lights add to the feel of unforgiving Old Testament reality. Everything else is pared away – there’s austere period costume, but no set to speak of. This is a granite hard, precision cut, intensely atmospheric production that transcends the original context of the play – an allegory for McCarthyism – expanding it into a weighty examination of the human capacity for irrational hatred.
At the centre stands Richard Armitage’s John Proctor, a hard man in a hard world. Casting the sexy dwarf from ‘The Hobbit’ was always going to get a few bums on seats, but his flinty handsomeness and sheer, rugged presence is key: he is a driven, determined man, an unstoppable force, colliding with the immovable object that is the Salem community, whch has been stirred to murderous hysteria by a combination of petty grievance, superstitious nonsense, an unaccountable judiciary and a refusal to believe that the group of young girls naming townsfolk as witches may be lying. The scenes of courtroom clash are truly astonishing, every utterance by Armitage and witchfinder-in-chief Danforth (Jack Ellis) like an avalanche. And when the girls are called before the judge, their mock possession is truly frightening – the piquancy of horror is never far from the mix. And the gradual, painful thawing of relations between Proctor and his wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) is just devastating.
It is operatic, it is immense, it is – after the Young Vic’s ‘A View from the Bridge’ – the second definitive Miller production London has seen this year: the lengthy first half flew by, and yet I was grateful for an interval just to steady myself; by the end I was pretty much broken.
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Never in my life have I been so gripped and personally invested in a plot; I’m surprised I have any nails left at all; my hands were raking through my hair almost continually.
I have also never wanted to kill quite so many characters as in this play; Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley) is a shrieking banshee, accusing practically the whole town of being a ‘consort of the devil’ in an effort of divert suspicion from herself and take personal vengeance on farmer John Proctor (Armitage) and his honest, upstanding wife, Elizabeth (a poised, dignified Anna Madeley, who was also the Governess in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ last year).
However, this is not only a tale of private revenge, but also one of the conflict between the individual and the state. Despite some of the most religious and virtuous women in the town being accused, no one will believe John Proctor or his easily swayed, hysterical servant, Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) that the girls’ ‘fits’ are fraudulent pretence. The most distressing thing for me was that you could see the authority figures, like Deputy Governer Danforth (an excellent Jack Ellis) and Reverend John Hale (an equally brilliant \Adrian Schiller), genuinely thought they were doing God and the Law’s work; that they were being just and logical, even though they’d basically chucked logic out the window.
The cast overall are completely incredible. One of my favourites was William Gaunt as Giles Corey, the ‘old man’ who initially brings some comic relief, but later reveals himself to be smart, determined and indomitable.
Armitage himself was fantastic as the complex hero of the piece; brooding and troubles but genuinely shameful for his ‘lechery’ and truly loving of his wife and family. I loved the way Elizabeth had her hair hidden by a scarf for almost the whole piece, making her seem somewhat cold and less human, but that it was finally taken off at the very end; she both revealed her vulnerability and her humanity in her love and understanding for her husband. The other girls also wore headscarves which would fall off when they showed their personalities during fits of rage or ‘spiritualism’ – this was a really nice touch, and, I thought, suggested an uncontrollable animalistic nature hidden underneath society’s restraint. The ‘good’ women of the play never removed their scarves (excepting, of course, Elizabeth), as though they had entirely controlled this spirit inside themselves. The ending of the piece was poignant; Proctor could finally call himself a ‘good man’… but at a price. It was especially moving because it became clear the ‘authority figures’ didn’t really want to see anyone die, but couldn’t stop the course they themselves had set without losing face.
The girls in the ensemble also deserve special mentions; their supposed ‘fits’ could easily have slipped to the side of ridiculous, but they were instead deeply disturbing.
With sparse wooden furniture, menacing music and mist, the staging also contributed massively to the ominous atmosphere. I really like the whole ‘In-the-round’ thing the Old Vic’s got going on, even though, being high up, it didn’t have that big of an impact on me personally. All the different access points really make the action more dynamic, and Farber makes full use of every inch of the stage. This production is over three hours long (even longer than most Shakespeare!); the actors take their time on the stage, allowing us insight into their daily life, their rituals… The silent presence of actors helping to removing and adding furniture between scenes felt almost threatening at times, and also served the emphasise the isolation of a character once they all left. The lighting was clever too, placed below when it was an attic setting, above in the farmhouse, growing colder and warmer as the tension changed.
I think you can already tell, this is a fabulous production of a great play. Despite its length, I wasn’t bored for a second. One cannot help but be gripped by the uncontrollable chaos that sweeps the town of Salem and its residents. Both the acting and staging are superb, heightening the tension to an almost unbearable pitch, with the tragic ending leaving you wanting more. If you can possibly get tickets, I urge you to go! You will not be disappointed.
Incredible! The story was compelling from the first to the last scene. The set was great and we felt as though we were right in the middle of the action. The actors were all very impressive. Highly recommended.
This was a very powerful production, I really enjoyed it and the audience seems to have enjoyed it too: there was a standing ovation at the end. I thought this was also because of the play, which shocks and disturbs, but credit goes of course to everyone who brought it alive. One small criticism, which is not only relevant to this play, is the over reliance on recorded music. This feels a bit awkward. The instrumentation used was quite stark, so I don't see the problem. I think musicians playing live would add much to the experience.
Absolutely knocked out by this production, performances, lighting, music, direction, whole thing. Richard Armitage is a powerful presence, he portrays the tangled complexity of Proctor. Anna Madeley is Elizabeth Proctor. You feel her deep pain. Samantha Colley in her very first professional role clearly has a successful future in front of her. I could go on ... every actor is exellent. I saw it 2 weeks ago and I'm still reeling ... Do see it if you can.
The play has been tightened up and is now 3.5 hours including intermission. Best production I've seen in years and still gut-wrenchingly relevant. Totally absorbing and the time passed in a blink. Superb performances from the cast with Richard Armitage much more than a come-on factor; choreography, music, lighting all remarkable; a production to talk about. Years later, people will say: Did you see Yael Farber's, The Crucible? And you will feel sorry if you missed it.
Three and a half hours never passed so quickly for me! What a wonderful production of this classic play! I was mesmerised from start to finish. Everything about this is top notch - casting, acting, direction, production design, music, everything. Hits you in the guts and leaves you stunned. I was blown away and have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Go if you love great theatre!
Four hours to conclude that witch hunt is bad is just too much. It's not that the actors did not pour their hearts out. It's just that the flow was excruciatingly slow, killing any real excitement from the turns of the story.