tue 05/03/2024

The Crucible, Bristol Old Vic | reviews, news & interviews

The Crucible, Bristol Old Vic

The Crucible, Bristol Old Vic

Stirring production of Arthur Miller classic about a community turning against itself

A superlative cast and finely tuned pacingPhoto: Geraint Lewis

Tom Morris has a strong feel for drama that explores the personal implications of fanaticism: his production of John Adams’s powerful opera The Death of Klinghoffer for New York's Met and the ENO, used a language of great simplicity that allowed the work’s most disturbing complexities to come through with formidable power.

Once again with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, an equally rich text, there is a stripped-down quality to his overall vision, supported by a generally superlative cast and finely tuned pacing. This works wonders with a play that explores the dark ways in which human frailties lead to collective madness and acts of individual heroism.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set evokes the constant presence of the wild forest frontier that lies just beyond the edge of the struggling settlement of Salem. Although they are only mentioned once in the text – as perpetrators of murder – the native Americans are very present, in constant resonance with the demonic forces that the Puritans seek to expunge from their midst.

Part of the audience is on stage, in curved seating reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century anatomical theatres, as if the play’s spectators were watching a dissection of the human drama that unfolds before them. Although Bristol’s Old Vic is a classic proscenium arch theatre, Morris has made sure we are drawn in and implicated in the twists and turns of the string of confessions, denunciations and acts of treason and bravery unfolding before us: in the court scene which opens the play’s second half, he has left the house lights half on, so that the whole house, not just the audience on stage, become directly involved.

Jeffery Kissoon, as the implacable Judge Danforth, dominates the proceedings, as John Proctor (Dean Lennox Kelly) pleads for his wife and other victims of the witch-hunt. This is a part that could easily stumble into grand-guignol excess, but Kissoon manages a range of emotions with great sensitivity, bringing to the character a beguiling mix of the monstrous and the humane. Kelly is a strong presence too, though his take on the play’s conflicted hero isn’t as subtle as it might be, or as multifaceted as Neve McIntosh’s portrayal of his brave and loving wife Elizabeth: the weakness of the play’s last act, the only moment that the tension flags, may well derive from the less than convincing portrayal of the inner conficts that tear John Proctor apart. Or it just may be the near impossibility of following Act Three, with its spine-chilling climax as the hysteria-driven girls, led by Abigail Williams (played with scary duplicity by Rona Morrison, pictured above left ) blast Mary Warren's denunciation of their "fraud" wide apart. 

Morris and his company achieve an unforgettable coup de théatre at this key moment in the play, in a way that combines sound, screams and perfect physical theatre in an almost operatic way. This explosion of theatrical grace highlights the more conventionally blocked scenes in which characters stand motionless as if frozen in various postures that emphasise the limitations of the conventional stage. It's difficult to know if this is an intentional device, but the effect undermines the moments when the action flows more freely.

The casting is excellent, and the standard of acting uniformly high. Music and sound design from Dave Price and inspired lighting serve the high-tension drama well, subtly at times and with ear-splitting explosion when most needed.

In the week of Arthur Miller’s 100th anniversary, Tom Morris’s stirring production reminds us that the American writer is one of the very best playwrights of the 20th century. This is, as the director points out in his programme notes, a play with universal significance that speaks to us very clearly today. But it also says a great deal about America: the tortured relationship between wilderness and the idealistic attempts at civilising the untamed world, and the terror-inducing stranglehold of fundamentalist Christianity and the manichean world-view this entails. And last but not least, the play mirrors, in a deep and subversive way, the story of The Passion. That all these layers of meaning are revealed with great tact is an indication of the production's many qualities.

The play mirrors in a deep and subversive way the story of The Passion


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I saw this production. A few things… 1) In my book any playwright who is completely incapable of writing fifty per cent of the human population is not a great dramatist. How has Arthur Miller, a man unable to see women as anything other than two dimensional saints or whores been bestowed with the title of greatest dramatist of the 20th century? If he had written his male characters as poorly as his female ones we would never, ever have heard of him, and rightly so. His success is an example of the sexist male canon still at work and it is about time the club of public schoolboys who run our theatres started questioning their complacency on this. 2) Let’s remember what the subject of this play is. It is about witch hunts! Now witch hunts were about many things but overwhelmingly they were about male fear and oppression of women’s sexuality and authority– oppression through scapegoating, violence and systematic murder – something that has happened throughout history when societies are in flux and is still happening now in various forms in various cultures around the world. And how does the great Miller approach this very sensitive and emotive subject? He makes it all about the men!! The women are only there as a catalyst for what he sees as the real drama – the inner life of the tortured bloke struggling to cope with his own powerlessness. My heart bleeds. Thank goodness John Proctor has a nice wife to make him feel better about himself. And thank goodness she isn’t going to have a crisis too (even though she’s in a bit of a pickle herself) and distract us from what is really important – how he feels. Only men of course are complex enough to have inner lives and represent the human condition. Us women are just here to make them dinner or be seductresses they can blame when their dicks get them into trouble. 3) In light of all this WHY put this play on now? What relevance does it have in the 21st century? What is Tom Morris saying about witch hunts in the modern age? What is he saying about anything? I thought this was a very stilted, safe and uninspired staging of a play that needs to be approached with fresh eyes aware of gender politics. 4) I liked the trees. The trees were good.

I confess to being a huge fan of Arthur Miller, largely because of how he makes Greek tragedy modern and accessible to all. This production was no exception and in my opinion a five star show. I may agree that public school males have dominated British Theatre establishments. Indeed, as a guest in this country, that seems to me pretty common in the entire economy, shameful and obstructive as it may be. I doubt that thiis reason to turn away from Classics like The Crucible. Your comment concerns me about the future of theatre generally, because it puts agenda over context, hope over history, as if these have to be mutually exclusive. Denying context is the play's warning...for our entire species.

Thanks for the comments, anonymous 1 and anonymous 2. Always good to generate some feedback and know that reviews are read. But I can't help thinking that anonymity is the stuff of societies in which denunciations are whispered under the cloak of secrecy and in which open debate is stifled for one reason or another. The world of witch-hunts?

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