This review is from the National Theatre in September 2022. ‘The Crucible’ transfers to the Gielgud Theatre in June 2023, with Milly Alcock from ‘House of the Dragon’ taking over the role of Abigail Williams, with other casting TBC.
It doesn’t get much more spectacular than the crashing wall of artificial rain that shrouds the Olivier’s stage before Lyndsay Turner’s revival of ‘The Crucible’ starts. Once the curtain (of rain) goes up, it’s only sparingly used, with the rest of Es Devlin’s set a minimalist thrust pocked by tangles of chairs. But the elemental cascade, Tim Lutkin’s exquisitely moody lighting and the acapella singing from the pink-clad chorus of girls is a spine-tingling combination.
The first impression is that Turner is intent on laying on a colossal, sturm-und-drang spectacle in the vein of the Old Vic’s monumental 2014 production, the last big London staging of Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece.
In fact, it’s more complicated than that.
Once it gets underway, two things about Turner’s production leap out. The first is the accents. ‘The Crucible’ is traditionally performed with English accents, because it’s set in Massachusetts in 1692, and the characters are mostly English immigrants or their children. Here, they’re American; not even proto-American: Brendan Cowell‘s troubled hero John Proctor speaks with a distinct New Jersey twang.
Then there’s Catherine Fay’s costumes. I am the precise opposite of a fashion expert, but my best understanding is that they’re a semi-anachronistic higgledy-piggledy of Americana from the last several centuries; nothing aggressively modern but not confined to a single obvious time period. The pink-clad girls wear retro peasant smocks; John Proctor wanders around in a buttoned work shirt with a red T-shirt underneath. I’m not sure I quite get the aesthetic: a sense of timelessness perhaps, that intentionally leaves it as neither a period drama nor explicitly modern dress.
In any case, it would seem to back up the unexpected accents. A Noo Joisey Proctor feels a bit wild at first, but it comes to feel like a great decision. It reclaims the character from traditional thespy brooding-hero portrayals and brings him much more in line with other great Miller protagonists like Willy Loman or Eddie Carbone – a flawed working schlub, not a Byronic bad boy. It’s a bold gamble that really pays off, and makes Proctor’s flaws – chiefly cheating on his wife Elizabeth (Eileen Walsh) with young Abigail Williams (Erin Doherty) – seem both more pathetic and more human. He also feels more like the little guy, standing up against Matthew Marsh’s posh, lugubrious Deputy Governor Danforth, whose inability to admit his own mistakes leads to carnage.
If you’ve somehow never come across it, ‘The Crucible’ is a historical drama about the real-life Salem Witch Trials, wherein a group of young girls accused dozens of their townsfolk of being witches, leading to a reign of terror – presided over by Danforth – in which 20 people were executed and many more arrested. It also functions as an allegory for the paranoid ravages of McCarthyism that Miller’s America was in the grip of. But I think Turner plausibly makes it about class, or at least accentuates the class dynamics: ultimately the executions occur less because of the wild accusations the girls make, more because the men in charge are using the accusations to indulge in hero fantasies and petty score-settling, with no regard for the poorer people they are slaughtering.
The role of accuser-in-chief Abigail Williams goes to the ever-excellent Doherty. Despite being ‘Grease’ levels of older than her 17-year-old character, she gives Abigail a genuine sense of being a teenager – sweetly gawky and vulnerable in isolation, a mean girl in front of an audience. And for all the deaths she causes, we’re never allowed to forget Proctor took advantage of her, and the power imbalance that exists between them throughout.
There’s also excellent work from Fisayo Akinade as increasingly disillusioned witchcraft expert Reverend Hale. Akinade is a brilliant comedy actor and it’s not a comedy role. But he nails it: small, neat and besuited, his Hale starts out as a fastidious but decent bureaucrat who really believes he’s hunting down witches. By the end he has visibly shattered, an angry, empty shell of a man who realises he has become an instrument of murder but has lost all control of the situation, his faith gone, simply desperate to save lives.
Ultimately, Turner’s take on ‘The Crucible’ is full of good ideas and atmospheric flourishes – the rain, the accents, the way the chorus of girls appear behind scrims, singing hauntingly – without coalescing into an entirely coherent reinvention. Which is fine. Miller’s play is both a tremendous piece of writing and built like brick shithouse. It doesn’t need to be interpreted or taken in hand like, say, ‘Hamlet’. Everyone already knows what the subtext is, it doesn’t need a hot-take reading.
As such, the second half of Turner’s production is great for the reasons most great productions of ‘The Crucible’ are great: the exquisite tension in Miller’s writing, the sense that the witch hunters have lost control of the situation and are desperately searching for an off-ramp and the now-imprisoned Proctor’s agonised decision over whether to lie that he was in league with the Devil and live or to die with his name unblemished.
It’s a bit like one of those remastered editions of classic albums: a little crisper, a little deeper, you can hear a few new sounds, but ultimately it’s great for the reasons it’s always been great.