'The Crucible' review – Lyndsey Turner unleashes the full dramatic power of Arthur Miller's masterpiece

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Water is cascading down onto the Olivier stage, creating a tight, claustrophobic box within which a similar outpouring of accusations is about to rock the small town of Salem. It’s an unforgettable opening to Lyndsey Turner’s magnificent revival of The Crucible, setting up the chilling horror in which humanity turns in on itself with deadly consequences.

Arthur Miller, of course, had a very specific analogy in mind when he penned his 1953 play: the Salem witch trials of the 1690s represented the rampant destruction of McCarthyism. Today, you could make a whole new set of parallels with this fact-defying groupthink that demands absolute loyalty – you’re either with us or you’re guilty – whether it’s the reality-denial of our new Prime Minister, of Brexiteers, Donald Trump or Putin, the Twitter mobs or culture wars, or even the antivaxxer movement, gloriously satirised down the road at the Old Vic in Eureka Day.

But Turner wisely avoids any specific references, understanding that if you unleash the full dramatic power of Miller’s mighty work, it will encompass all of that and more. It is also an intimate portrait of a fractured marriage, of a flawed husband, a struggling wife and an embittered lover. The personal here has just as much weight as the political.

Erin Doherty gets top billing, following her star-making role as Princess Anne in Netflix’s The Crown, and she is indeed excellent as the vengeful Abigail Williams, who leads the girls in accusing townsfolk of witchcraft. But Abigail’s main target is Elizabeth Proctor, her former employer, who threw her out after she discovered that Abigail was having an affair with her husband John.

It’s easy to view Abigail as a straight antagonist – and a misogynistically written scapegoat too. But Doherty gives us a thoughtful reading. When her uncle, the insufferable Reverend Parris, scolds that she should be grateful he took her in, Doherty visibly flinches. It’s a reminder that Abigail is an orphaned girl, new to this repressive community, resentful of her low status, and who possibly found both a father figure and a much-needed source of affection in Proctor.

When the former lovers meet, there is crackling tension between Doherty and the physically imposing Brendan Cowell. She is hurt and bewildered by his attempted gaslighting as he dismisses their affair. Her response to his rejection struck me anew – “How do you call me child!”. He wants to have it both ways: to claim she’s too young to understand, yet old enough for him to have seduced. Miller aged up Abigail from the real-life figure (from around 11 to 17). Still, we can now recognise the major power imbalance in that relationship.

Abigail’s subsequent actions, then, have an initial satisfying revolutionary tinge: finally, downtrodden girls have a voice. Doherty gives her a prize-fighter’s stance – a shift from her earlier stooped form. But the terrifying escalation (with harrowing, horror movie-style convulsions from the girls) is a nerve-shredding tragedy, all the more shattering for its slow unfolding. At each stage, it might yet be halted, but it never is – that unstoppable mania overwhelming the truth.

But the pettiness of it also comes through in Lyndsey’s detailed production. Some accusations are just made to settle scores, like the man who bought a pig which later died; now, he names the seller a witch. Karl Johnson’s Giles Corey, a gleeful veteran of the law courts, initially laughs at the absurdity of it, but is bewildered, stunned, finally vanquished by the cruel illogic of these proceedings.

Conversely, you can have some sympathy for Ann Putnam (a passionate Zoë Aldrich). Seven of her children died, and she has no explanation for it. How eagerly she now grasps onto one: there is a villain, someone to blame. The draconian theocracy of Salem didn’t allow her any other outlet. You also feel for whistle-blower Mary Warren (Rachelle Diedericks’s squirming physicality reminds us of how young she is), who tries to do the right thing but can’t stand alone.

Nick Fletcher is a suitably ghastly Reverend Parris, who only cares about keeping his job, while Matthew Marsh effectively shows the cracks in the imposing façade of Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth. Both, ultimately, are cowards trying to control public opinion for their own ends. Fisayo Akinade is heart-rending as the conscientious Reverend Hale, who realises too late his own complicity in this sham judgement.

But just as compelling is the domestic scene at the Proctors’ home – which John, in an angry moment, likens to a court, since wife Elizabeth still judges him for his affair. Cowell and Eileen Walsh create such a rich dynamic, with hurt, pride, longing and fear shifting between them. It makes the denouement a moment just as much for them as for their judges: the final reckoning on what a “good” person (that word we hear bandied about) might actually mean.

As well as that downpour, Es Devlin supplies the wooden chairs of the all-important church, later overturned and abandoned. The innocence-meets-murderous malevolence of the girls is conjured by their exaggerated pink ruffled frocks (Catherine Fay) and eerie a cappella singing (Caroline Shaw’s compositions). But most extraordinary is Tim Lutkin’s work: he lights the actors like an Old Master painting, and they’re swallowed up by darkness upstage. This is the National firing on all cylinders.

The Crucible at the National Theatre to 5 November.

Photo credit: Erin Doherty and Fisayo Akinade in The Crucible at the National Theatre. (Photo by Johan Persson)

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