From Bristol Old Vic to London's Old Vic: it is almost exactly 60 years since Arthur Miller's The Crucible received its British premiere at the Bristol Old Vic in November 1954, after opening on Broadway the year before, and now it is back at London's Old Vic. The play has long become one of those dogged staples of the repertoire and a school set text that's difficult to see through fresh eyes.
But that is precisely what the South African director Yaël Farber has brought to this brilliant and bracing new production. She's a director who first burst upon British consciousness in 2012 with her stunningly physical and ferocious production of Strindberg's Miss Julie, relocated to contemporary South Africa and re-titled Mies Julie, that got five-star raves at the Edinburgh Fringe, then came to London's Riverside Studios.
Now she applies the same kind of brooding intensity and intimacy to a much bigger play, with its cast of 24 actors magnificently marshalled onto the platform that stands at the centre of this in-the-round configuration of the theatre that has been re- installed there this year, and proves a particular benefit for this play and production.
It turns the audience into inquisitors as well as jury, and brings the play and its players into much closer contact with us. If there are occasions when the exaggerated passions of the young girls who, accused of witchcraft, start implicating adults in their story threaten to overwhelm, the underlying sense of hysteria is otherwise very precisely maintained, and more importantly so is the heartbreaking tenderness of the story of one of the couples affected, John Proctor (Richard Armitage, returning to the stage for the first time in 12 years after screen work in Spooks and the Hobbit) and his wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley).
Farber beds the play in with lots of physical business which is sometimes distracting, but she builds and maintains tension with a shattering intensity. There are likewise moments when some of the performances threaten to become overwrought, but this seems to be part of Farber's directorial scheme to keep the passions running high, so I won't single out the actors who would appear to be indulging themselves.
This has already been an amazing year for Arthur Miller in The Cut, with A View from the Bridge revived down the road at the Young Vic with real astonishment. Now the Old Vic has another hit on its hands. It's a long evening - it runs for three-and-a- half hours - but a very rewarding one.
"... staged with a mixture of simplicity and dramatic power that builds up an ominous feeling of dread and fear."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"... tremendous production of a play that, in Proctor's cry "Is the accuser always holy now?", retains its disturbing relevance."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"At times, the show descends into overblown, shouty portentousness ... yet other moments are spellbinding."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Although a running time of more than three and a half hours sounds daunting, The Crucible is an absorbing and ultimately devastating experience. It taxes the mind but also spears you in the guts."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard