Sunday, 5 May 2019

The Crucible – Arthur Miller (The Yard Theatre, London)



I am not going to pretend that I know much about Arthur Miller. I know he was an American playwright, once married to Marilyn Monroe and he wrote The Crucible, a drama based on the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692/93. (I know about that because we read it at school and took a school trip to the theatre in Manchester, or maybe Liverpool, to watch it!) But apart from that, I don’t own any Arthur Miller books, so I was happy to go with my friend’s recommendations and have a “Miller” day in London.

First stop, The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick. Now I have been to this quirky little theatre before to watch Three Sisters After Chekhov which was amazing, but I knew it was a small fringe theatre and so I didn’t raise my hopes up too much on this production, I was saving myself for the evening’s blockbuster!

You’re a witch.
                               No I’m not.
You’re a witch.

                               No I’m not.
You’re a witch.
                               Stop saying that.
You’re a witch.
                               You’re scaring me.
You’re a witch.
You’re a witch.
You’re a witch.


As I took my seat on the front row, I realised this was not going to be the place to take a naughty snapshot of the stage, especially as I was practically sat on it! The opening image is rather striking in its simplicity. A set of red chairs, with the names of the characters emblazoned on the white backrests, are set up as though ready for a service in a small pastoral church. A crib is front, centre stage. The nine actors gradually take their chairs and introduce us to their duel-roles as they swap seats to take on the numerous characters they portray. They start off telling the story in their own accents, gradually slipping into American accents as they explain the context of Salem and the Puritans of Massachusetts, their isolation, their internal tensions and lack of stability leading to the events that unfold during the rest of the play.

I thought this was an interesting but unnerving start to the play, especially as one of the main narrators was sat within touching distance and I wasn’t really sure where to look…do I stare her out, do I look at the others who aren’t speaking??!! I was a little bit anxious if I’m honest…but then as I settled into the play, I realised this was a good thing. I wasn’t just watching the play…I felt complicit in watching the atrocities unfurl…I was that absorbed I felt myself wanting to shout out…scream “No” but I couldn’t…this is theatre I’m watching…I don’t have a voice whilst I'm sitting there watching!

This was pretty clever stuff by Artistic Director, Jay Miller. Sometimes it’s the simplicity of something which says the most. His choice to make The Crucible The Yard Theatre’s first revival of an old play is an interesting one. Watching this small-town community break-down in front of you as characters are victimised and bullied, where immigrants are now outcasts and not to be trusted, this strong belief in a higher power? Well it’s not hard to make the connection with the clap-trap gullible Daily Mail readers swallow about Brexit and migrant workers.  

Now whilst I thought it was an interesting opener to the show, I did start to get mildly worried that maybe the entire piece would be like this. As the cast, sat in modern dress, continued to set the scene, including stage directions, I wondered if there would be any…well, acting involved! I needn’t have worried, there was a visible and dramatic change as we switched to period dress and to the rest of the tale as we found ourselves in the home of Reverend Parris, where his daughter Betty lies motionless in her crib; he has discovered that Betty had been dancing naked in the forest the night before with his Barbadian slave and some other girls performing pagan rituals.

As the town becomes beset with rumours of witchcraft, Reverend Parris agrees to get Reverend John Hale to investigate. He is an expert on witchcraft and this news sets panic amongst the girls who had been trying to conjure a curse against a local woman, Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail Williams, one of the girls involved in the ritual, threatens the other girls and demands they stick to their story of harmlessly dancing in the woods. John Proctor, a local farmer, confronts Abigail. She had once worked for him, but she was fired following an affair with him. Whilst she still had feelings for John, he makes it clear he only has feelings for his wife. During their confrontation, Betty starts screaming, the villagers presume this is because they have been singing a psalm and so the accusations of Betty being possessed, and witchcraft, resume once more. During this time the tension has been rising, but you only realise this when the cast speak as one voice and terror shivers down your spine!

As you move through the play to the actual witch trails, the production grows in confidence. There is a mix of contemporary and period stitched together, highlighting that this play was based around an event in the 1600’s but the themes are still prevalent today. It is a cautionary tale of persecution and fearmongering, and in our digital generation this seems to become the norm, rather than the exception. I felt uncomfortable as masked figures inhabited the stage…the witches, the contagion of the play. They set to unnerve proceedings as The Judge (Jacob James Beswick), played with some humour to give some depth to this sombre play, condemned innocent women to death, not necessarily because he believed in God, but because he believed in “the system.” The courtroom scene worked all the better for the ambient mixing of recorded whispered words that floated around the audience with the actors simultaneously saying the same words on stage.

What was most poignant about the play was that the role of John Proctor, the voice of truth and reason, was played by a woman. Now I have heard a lot by people in the past stating “men should be played by men, women by women. I don’t want to see a female Malvolio!” But in this production, Caoilfhionn Dunne shines as John, and it neither adds nor detracts anything from the play; the audience is just treated to the work of a talented actor who can portray the truth and justice of which John seeks throughout the play. It’s an interesting twist as John is trying to convince the men in power that the women should be heard and believed…that they are innocent and being condemned to death because of the reckless acts of some young women who have their own motives for lying…but his (her) words fall on deaf ears, something which still happens in today’s society.

I can honestly say I was shocked to find I had sat through three hours of performance. The only thing that convinced me I had, was the numb bum I had from sitting on the “school” style plastic chairs! This was an ambitious and cleverly constructed adaptation of Miller’s play…by another Miller, which made me all the more excited to see that evening’s production of All My Son’s starring Sally Field and Bill Bullman at The Old Vic.


The Crucible ran at The Yard Theatre 27th March 2019 to 11th May 2019.

All photo's c/o @helenmurraypix for The Yard Theatre

(view her other work here https://www.helenmurrayphotos.com )

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