Originally published on London Box Office
This summer’s ‘In the Round’ season at the Old Vic was pretty much a guaranteed trio of hits as soon as they were announced. Clarence Darrow (a one man play with Kevin Spacey), The Crucible (directed by Yael Farber) and Electra (Ian Rickson directing Kristin Scott Thomas) – anyone can see how quickly tickets would sell for these performances. So when I managed to get tickets for The Crucible, I was excited before I even stepped foot into the theatre. And my amazement only grew from that moment onward.
One of Arthur Miller’s most well-known and widely studied plays, The Crucible examines how easily fear can turn a community into a hysterical and poisonous mob. Set during the infamous Salem witch trials, a village is wrenched apart when the Reverend Parris’ daughter is caught sick with a ‘mysterious disease’. Rumours of black magic spread like wildfire and the Reverend, fearing the worst, calls upon a famed witch expert (Rev. Hale) who only adds fuel to the flames. Fingers quickly point at each other and it is the Barbadian slave Tituba that is the easiest suspect, having been seen dancing with the village girls late one night in the forest. One of those caught dancing, Abigail quickly spies the opportunity for the girls to blame others and save themselves from the accusations of witchcraft. Banding together, their corroborative story sets in motion an inflammable blame culture in which even the most pious is at risk and ‘guilty until proven innocent’ becomes the law of the land.
I sometimes worry about plays performed in the round, you often end up with the actors told to play with their backs to one side of the audience. Not so here, director Yaël Farber ensures that no one misses out on the action and there is always something to see. The set itself is verging on barren – you can’t easily have huge backdrops when playing in the round. But Farber and designer Soutra Gilmour have transformed the space into something verging on sinister. It’s almost as if the lack of props or significant pieces of furniture (save a bed in one scene and a dining table in another) adds to the atmosphere; the stage is as chilling as the events that unfold upon it. This starkness coupled with the hollow music and the smell of incense made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as soon as I sat down.
Even though this play is a 3.5 hour marathon, there is such an intense delivery from every one of the cast members that at no point did I feel like the play was losing its audience. In the round it is very easy to see other audience members’ reactions and I didn’t see one person break concentration. Young or old (and there was a real mixture of people that were watching) we were all hooked in suspense, becoming more and more disheartened with each scene as the village lost its grip on truth, logic and common decency.
The true stars of this production though are the actors. I say actors plural because the standard of every single member of the cast was incredibly high and it’s very rare to see a production without a single weak link. Of course some were better than others but that was mainly because they had more interesting parts. One of my highlights was Rebecca Nurse (Ann Firbank); as one of the village elders her final scene was breathtaking, she came across as fragile in body but unbreakable in spirit. Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley) was also chilling as the central antagonist, you could feel that every move she made was calculated and completely devoid of humanity. In this role, Colley made her professional acting debut and if this is what she can do as she is starting out I’m already looking forward to seeing her future roles.
The two standout performances however came from the Proctor couple. Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) and in particular John Proctor (Richard Armitage) were laid bare under the scrutiny of the those that cried witch and as an audience we watched them crumble before our very eyes. The great thing about their interaction was that their emotional connection actually strengthened throughout the play. As the relationship between villagers deteriorated, theirs became more trusting and steadfast and this really came across in the acting. Once again, the final scene between these two was absolutely magical to watch; I can’t quite believe how raw, visceral and powerful the final few minutes of this play were.
I really feel like I should make some criticism of this play, I’ve been sat trying desperately to think of a way in which to improve it. But there honestly wasn’t anything – it had incredible acting, insightful direction and a very atmospheric set. All in all the Old Vic became the perfect setting that really did justice to the sheer brilliance of Miller’s writing. Put simply, wow.