‘God damns all liars,’ is a line that gets uttered a few times in ‘The Crucible’.
If Lyndsey Turner’s production, now transferred from the National Theatre to the West End, needed a catchy slogan to sum up her version of Arthur Miller’s puritans and paranoia masterpiece, she could do worse than those four words. Every adult in Salem – a town made up of ‘small-windowed, dark houses snuggling against the raw Massachusetts winter’ – seems physically weighed down by the crushing energy of God’s hatred. Everyone is lying or has lied about something.
Sometimes this play suffers from a sloggy second half. Its initial scenes, where Salem’s hysteria is just coming to a boil, can overshadow the later bits (characters rotting in prison cells, minds and bodies shattered). This is absolutely not the case here. Turner’s version builds and builds like a storm. When the heavens finally open – both figuratively and literally – the downpour takes your breath away.
This has a lot to do with Matthew Marsh. The actor’s portrayal of Danforth, the deputy governor is part Frasier Crane, part Thulsa Doom and utterly unignorable. Marsh’s lines, delivered with a kind of imperious otherworldliness, provide the second half with a mesmerising catalyst. Quite simply, Marsh behaves like no other actor on stage, yet somehow elevates everyone he comes into contact with. It’s quite something.
Elsewhere, star wattage is provided by ‘House of the Dragon’s Milly Alcock, whose impudent and intense Abigail Williams convinces at every turn. The temptation in 2023 to twist the play’s message to ham-fistedly convey something about, I don’t know, cancel culture or incels must be enormous. Certain characters could easily become cyphers to serve that particular purpose, but Turner’s vision is both laudably conventional, yet also cutting edge. That is to say Abigail, indeed all of Salem’s young girls, are horrible and creepy. As it should be.
Brian Gleeson’s troubled hero John Proctor is solid but essentially workmanlike. Conversely, there are a few bells and whistles to the production that occasionally distract from or (worse) lessen the impact of the performances. Es Devlin’s extravagant ‘wall of rain’ set is fine, but is almost embarrassingly extraneous, like having a maitre d’ French kiss you as you enter and leave a restaurant. Elsewhere there’s a Forboding And Sinister soundbed that alternates between sub-audible Bakerloo-line thrum and intrusive synth crescendo. Arthur Miller’s words require an atmospheric backing track like the surface of the sun needs an electric heater.
Luckily, Turner’s ‘The Crucible’ has an unwavering focus and enough brilliant core performances to overcome those niggles. Fisayo Akinade’s quietly crumbling Reverend Hale is a marvel and Nadine Higgin’s Tituba steals every scene she’s in.
Never seen this play before? You’re in for a treat. This is a production that will be considered a high benchmark for years to come.