Watching two plays by Arthur Miller on consecutive evenings gave me a unique opportunity to compare this celebrated playwright's work at closer quarters than I've been able to before. It certainly confirmed to me that Miller was a writer of enormous stature and that his work has an enduring quality that few writers would be able to match. Both last night's play – 'All My Sons' – and this evening's play – 'The Crucible' – have much in common. Both have riveting plots and provide actors with demanding roles. They both make for tremendous theatre.
This version of 'The Crucible' is the first play in the new season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. Though the previous night's performance had to be cancelled due to torrential rain, the weather decided to take on a kinder spirit for the opening night and all that was needed was a blanket to ward off the late evening chill.
First performed in 1953, 'The Crucible' is another American classic and one of the best known historical plays of the twentieth century. Like 'All My Sons' it's a compelling and intriguing story which has the same feel of inevitability about it. There are similar themes including family, betrayal, guilt, and the interaction between the individual and society.
Set in Massachusetts in 1692, the play is about the infamous Salem witch trials, but it has also been seen as an allegory of the Macarthyite witch-hunt of communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Though Miller used the names of the main characters involved in the actual Salem trials, he made changes to some historical details. When the play begins, a young girl, Betty, is mysteriously ill in bed and rumours are abroad that she's been seen 'flying'. Along with other local girls and a slave called Tituba, Betty has been dancing in the forest at night. Under interrogation, Tituba confesses to witchcraft and before long the girls, led by Abigail Williams, are accusing several of the local women of witchcraft. Events move swiftly and the situation escalates with mass arrests, torture, trials and, eventually hangings.
Directed by the Open Air Theatre's artistic Director, Timothy Sheader, the setting respects the historical location, simplicity being the driving force behind the directorial vision and Jon Bausor's ingenious design. The stage is a simple platform, shaped like one side of a house or church which has fallen over and lies flat on the rough ground. There are windows and doors built-in to the platform which provide entrances from rooms in houses below, or the goal where prisoners arrested on allegations of witchcraft are tortured and held. With the acting platform surrounded by the beautiful trees of the park, you could easily be in a small colonial town of the late seventeenth century. Throughout the play, young girls sit around the edges of the platform, occasionally reacting to events on the stage, and reminding us that they are the instigators and in a sense the puppeteers controlling events.
Tall, slender and sporting long, straight hair, Patrick O'Kane is the down-to-earth farmer, John Proctor, who finds himself at the centre of events as his honest neighbours are arrested on-by-one and subjected to investigation and torture. O'Kane's powerful and moving interpretation has echoes of Christ's torture and death. He's well-supported by Emma Cunniffe as his honest wife Elizabeth who, wishing to preserve her husband's good name, lies on his behalf and thereby condemns him. Emily Taaffe is a force to be reckoned with as the beautiful and manipulator, Abigail Williams, and the ever-excellent Oliver Ford Davies orchestrates the judicial proceedings with no-nonsense, bureaucratic diligence as Deputy-Governor Danforth.
'The Crucible' isn't an obvious choice for the Open Air Theatre. At least it wasn't so obvious to me until this production. However, the setting turns out to be near perfect. As the sun disappears, nightfall provides the gloomy backdrop for scenes in the gaol. Combined with the subtle use of echo through the sound system and emotive music from composer Nick Powell the result in an eerie and chilling experience, but great, unmissable theatre nonetheless.
"And great this play undoubtedly is. The construction is so satisfyingly sturdy, the dramatic confrontations so intense, the analysis of the relationship between public affairs and private lives so deftly judged."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"The play remains the star. It asks only an honest rendering. Here, it finds it."
Libby Purves for The Times
"Although there are moments here of real punch, this is an earnest, rather slow-footed production, which, until its final scenes of demonic possession and tragic distress, doesn’t fully grip."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Enthralling revival "
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"The team at Regent’s Park Open Air have done it again, finding a remarkable drama...and adding to its brilliance with their unique setting and a superb company."
Paul Vale for The Stage