When a gaggle of girls decided to spice up their tedious lives with a spot of teeny bopping in the woods outside Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, little did they suspect the train of events they were setting in motion. Because what followed became the notorious Salem witch trials that led to the execution of 19 people and the imprisonment of scores more.
Arthur Miller based his play 'The Crucible' on these dreadful, hysterical events. Though Miller's plotting is convincing, don't be fooled into thinking it's an exact historical record - Miller changed some of the material facts (the ages of some characters, for example) for his own ends as a playwright. In the forefront of Miller's mind when penning the play were similarly disturbing events unfolding in America in the late forties and early fifties where members of the artistic community - actors, directors, writers and the like - were un-cordially invited to denounce their colleagues as communists or sympathisers in return for immunity from prosecution, a ludicrous incentive also employed by the examining judges in the Salem trials.
My dictionary offers three definitions of 'Crucible': a vessel used to melt things at high temperatures; a situation where people are severely tested; and 'a situation characterised by the confluence of powerful economic, social, political or intellectual forces'. So Arthur Miller chose exactly the right title for his play, which premiered over 50 years ago. And director Dominic Cooke has also got it right with this enthralling and gripping production of Miller's work, because all the elements of the dictionary definition are carefully laid dramatically before us by Cooke and his team. The result is certainly the best version of this play that I've ever seen, with very strong performances all round producing a wholly riveting piece.
In fact, right from the first moments of this production, you know that you're in for a scary kind of ride. Because as freedom (symbolised by nature) is banished from the play as the walls at the back of Hildegard Bechtler's clinical set slam shut, the action is confined within what can best be described as a claustrophobic social prison. And the Massachusetts community we're invited to observe starts to fall apart when faced with demons it can't see, augmented by human demons that see their opportunity to rid the community of undesirables or obtain vengeance. For the Salem community was already disintegrating before the demons arrived. This community harboured unscrupulous and domineering individuals who not only battled with each other for possessions, but were also not averse to lopping off the odd ear or two of any passing Quaker, poking holes in their tongues or generally giving them a jolly good torturing when their mind fell to the task. So much for Puritanism!
Having been discovered in their dancing activities by local pastor Parris, two of the girls decide to feign a strange illness in order to escape punishment. Their bewildered parents turn to associations with the devil to explain their offspring’s condition. From there, it's a small leap into accusations of witchcraft that start to flow from the girls like water from a tap, and in a trice the prisons are bulging and a court's been set-up to dole out the severest of punishments.
However, not all the community members relish the free drama unfolding in their midst - but they're caught up in it nonetheless. Among them stands John Proctor, powerfully and impressively played by Iain Glen. Proctor is the kind of man you'd turn to in a crisis, or expect to lend you a hand at harvest time. And Glen's dominant but gentle presence on the stage convinces us of his humanity and dignity. More so when he's incarcerated in gaol and rapidly deteriorates into a shell of his former self. It's a remarkable transition made all the more believable when, given the chance to admit his involvement with the devil and thus save himself, he stalwartly refuses to hand over his signed confession in order to preserve his 'good name'. Predictably, he's hung as a consequence.
There's excellent playing too from Helen Schlesinger as Proctor's wife who confesses to having kept a 'cold house', and Elaine Cassidy proves a diminutive but nevertheless sensual Abigail Williams as she seeks to manipulate events to dispatch Elizabeth Proctor to an early grave so she can recommence her affair with John. And I particularly liked Trevor Peacock as Giles Corey who not only managed to inject a hint of much-needed humour into the play, but also brought a touching sadness to the role when he realises his wife is doomed.
Arthur Miller's play is still remarkably relevant and disturbingly applicable to recent events. There's a line which might easily have found its way into a George Bush Speech or two: "You're either for this court or against it". Ring any bells? But what I hadn't noticed before in Miller's play is the carefully worked logic in the policies of the authorities. Though it's cock-eyed logic, it has a convincing appeal that's hard to resist and unnervingly difficult to challenge. And this is where one finds the relevance to present-day policies on both sides of the Atlantic, where we're informed that we must give up our rights and those of others in order to defend ... freedom and democracy.
Interestingly, it's been suggested that the scenes in Salem, where the girls rolled around on the floor as if possessed, might have been caused by hysteria, or the ingestion of a poisonous fungus called 'ergot' which apparently grows on rye and wheat, commonly cultivated in the area around Salem. Ergot poisoning causes symptoms such as mania, hallucination, melancholia and psychosis. But I didn't know that it was grown in Downing Street, or the back yard of the White House - one learns something every day!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Remarkable production...brings power and glory to the West End, feverishly exciting." ROBERT HANKS for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Intelligent, thrilling production."
External links to full reviews from popular press