wed 21/02/2024

The Crucible, The Yard Theatre review - wilfully over-stirred | reviews, news & interviews

The Crucible, The Yard Theatre review - wilfully over-stirred

The Crucible, The Yard Theatre review - wilfully over-stirred

Arthur Miller’s possession drama staged for spectacle

Painterly detail: Caoilfhionn Dunne as John ProctorImages by Helen Murray

The Crucible is a play that speaks with unrelenting power at times of discord, most of all when the public consciousness looks ripe for manipulation.

Never more appropriate than now, you might think – and in a year in which the work of Arthur Miller seems all over the West End, the chance to see a more experimental production of his masterpiece of 17th century religious obsession, based on the Salem witch trials but reflecting as much the anti-communist hysteria of 1950s America, looks inviting. Especially so given that The Yard, the ambitious Hackney Wick studio space that is staging it, has made much of the fact it’s the first time that the venue is tackling the work of a non-living playwright, and of the central role of John Proctor being played by a woman (Caoilfhionn Dunne, main picture).

I wish I could say that the result was more illuminating. Jay Miller works with a strikingly young cast of nine, the necessary doubling confidently handled and most of the main roles powerfully defined, some close to excellent towards the end of the three-hour run. But they’re up against a collection of directorial ploys that Miller and his production collaborators throw at the show, the effect of which ranges from occasional diversion to outright gimmickry.

It starts out as a paradigm of ensemble work, the cast assembled in what looks like a church hall (complete with spun-thread decor and stove), each occupying a chair marked with the name of their character while the play’s immediate context (complete with stage directions) is sketched out through group narration, with an am-dram effect that is almost radio drama. But gradually they move into the action, the players rising from their seats, their interaction elaborating the balance of these small-town relationships; gradually, too, their diction slips into more defined American accents.The Crucible, The Yard It’s begun in modern dress, but Act II moves the Proctor household back to period, at least for the couple themselves, until the court scene of Act III settles on a sort of contemporary totalitarian, a briskly assertive style that convinces, unlike what has come before, as the visual articulation of a particular world. Coherence in costume (Oliver Cronk) and set design (Cécile Trémoilères) is obviously fluid, and the more striking elements here are Josh Anio Grigg’s growingly remorseless soundscapes – just how much does tension have to be wound up? – and Jess Bernberg’s lighting work, which fluctuates between wildly different hues, intimate yellow one minute, cold grey-green the next.

The impression that spectacle is out to dominate over character becomes even more pronounced after the interval, as Miller winds up the technical add-ons – a karaoke interpolation, angled screen texts and images, microphone work and echo sound, blank-masked aliens lurking (we presume) as witches, flash and strobe effects. It’s a cacophony of stylisation that risks turning the actors into ciphers in a show that looks exaggerated even for a work about possession.

The fact that the cast comes through with distinction is despite rather than because of the production. Emma D’Arcy has an intimate power as Elizabeth Proctor, and there's a later quiet intenstity to Sorcha Groundsell as Mary Warren (their prim visages would look at home in the original Salem setting). As Judge Danforth, who's made into a compilation character here, Jacob James Beswick controls the court with bureaucratic efficiency, dominating those over whom he presides; prime among them is Nina Cassells’ Abigail, convincingly complicated elsewhere but hampered by having to play out her secret meeting scene with Proctor via hand microphone (pictured above).

The vaunted cross-casting of Dunne does nothing to amplify the role, with accompanying vocal and physical uncertainties in fact reducing the character. That said, Miller’s final husband-and-wife encounter is so strong that its prolonged, agonising drama of moral decision can’t fail to move. It achieves a stark power otherwise rare in this over-stirred Crucible.

It’s a cacophony of stylisation that risks turning the actors into ciphers in a show that looks exaggerated even for a work about possession


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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