Hackney Wick’s temple of leftfield theatre The Yard has literally never staged a revival of an old play up until this point. But Arthur Miller’s Red Terror-era witchcraft drama ‘The Crucible’ makes total sense for a place to start. The Yard’s biggest weakness is a tendency of directors to overdirect, obscuring the play underneath. But ‘The Crucible’ is built like a brick shithouse. Yard boss Jay Miller throws everything he has at it, some of his ideas glorious, some ridiculous, some both. And ‘The Crucible’ absorbs them all without missing a beat, because it’s the fucking ‘Crucible’.
It takes a while to warm up. The opening scene, in which the seated cast narrates the opening of Miller’s play – stage directions and all – before slowly transitioning to American accents and ‘proper’ acting, is not unenjoyable, but feels like a familiar warm-up exercise to be got through before the show can really start. The fact that the second scene, set at the isolated homestead of tortured hero John Proctor (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and his wife Elizabeth, switches from modern dress to period dress for no obvious reason feels typical of the production’s tendency to jump around for its own amusement. And although she’s a fine actor and nobody should have a problem with a woman playing a male role, Dunne feels miscast as Proctor: angsty, but indistinct.
The one actor she does have chemistry with is Nina Cassells’s Abigail, the young girl who Proctor had a fling with and who now leads the terror against the town of Salem, pretending to hear voices from God as she accuses neighbour after neighbour of witchcraft. A scene in which Proctor confronts Abigail in the woods the night before his wife’s trial is haunting and weird, Cassells’s Abigail dazed, alluring and damaged – she’s not a bunny boiler, but somebody who appears to be deeply struggling with her mental health.
The production gets better as it goes on, not least because of the hypnotic quality of Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design and Jonah Brody’s ambient score. Both are remarkable throughout, and none more so that in the disorientating courtroom scene in which mangled recorded whispers of the text ominously play around the actors saying those same words.
Here, Jacob James Beswick gives the best performance in the play as Judge Hathorn: dressed in short sleeves and tie, he’s less pompous witchfinder, more coldblooded bureaucrat, condemning people to death because of his belief not in God, but in The System. By this stage, there are also faintly terrifying figures in sinister bald masks wandering around the stage and I couldn’t really give you a straight-up answer as to what they *precisely* represent, but the scene is an absolute masterclass in the atmospheric potential of the theatre.
So yeah, it’s kind of out there. But Miller (the director) knows he can trust Miller (the playwright). The bells and whistles don’t take anything away. Watching a play about a hitherto stable community collapsing into bitter recriminations because of an obstinate belief in the impossible – well, it’s not hard for the mind to wander vaguely to Brexit.
One last point: the Yard is a tiny theatre in the middle of nowhere made out of recycled junk, and it’s only just started receiving government funding. That it can stage such a relentless, imaginative production of this thunderous Miller play for £17 a ticket is completely wonderful, and deserves to be taken into account. Maybe it won’t be a ‘Crucible’ for the ages, but it’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry.