It’s surely not too much to call Arthur Miller’s The Crucible a collective scream of agony paralleling 17th century witchtrials in Salem with the stranglehold of Cold War 1950s’ expediency, tightening its grip on individual lives and families.
“Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house …”, says Reverend Hale (Coronation Street’s Charlie Condou) as he entreats the presiding judge Danforth (Jonathan Tafler) to understand the repercussions of the court’s politically- and property motivated condemnations imprisoning and executing parents.
When the play was written, many had been swept along by the ideals of communism and thrown their lot in with the cause of the Soviets, who eventually became allies with the US, during the Second World War.
The first performance of the play in 1953 pre-empted the execution in the electric chair of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for Soviet espionage. They left two small boys with relatives scared off beyond distraction until they were finally adopted outside the family.
The Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, at the end of the District Line, has now mounted a touring co-production of The Crucible with Selladoor Productions and Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg,
Directed by Douglas Rintoul, this is a production with an intriguing design concept by Anouk Schiltz giving a powerful resonance to a play the relevance of which since it was written never ceases to diminish when lies have irreversible consequences.
The owners of farmsteads in Salem in the state of Massachussetts find themselves at the centre of accusations of witchcraft and a pact with the devil when a group of young girls led by a calculating Abigail (Lucy Keirl) seek to extricate themselves from fault. As does, for different reasons, the local minister Reverend Parris (Cornelius Clarke).
The self-sufficient Proctors have had their ups and downs. Yet John (Eoin Slattery) and Elizabeth (Call The Midwife’s Victoria Yeates) show a united front in dismissing the allegations.
Especially as they know well two of the girls involved, their past maidservant Abigail and their present wench, Mary (Augustina Seymour). Especially as John appears long ago to have formed his own cartel with fellow farmers Francis Nurse (Paul Beech) and litigious Giles Corey (David Delve).
Instead, the Proctors discover they have unwittingly overreached themselves. Mary has been promoted to court official and she begins a devastating assertion and instrusion of the court and political administration’s authority into the Proctor family’s lives and those around them.
Miller himself could be shrewd at self-promotion and not a little disingenous. However what makes The Crucible a great play is that, while thinly veiled, it is searingly honest about the fallibility, as well as the strength of individuals cornered by a politicized and partisan legal set up.
This push-me-pull-you is crystallized in this production’s precise design which speaks to the audience without using words. The over-confidence of John and Elizabeth Procter at the start of the play quickly finds itself besieged from all sides and erupts in rows between husband and wife as the pressure increases.
The costuming ranging from muted browns, black and white of the 17th century and the pastels of the 1950s all serve to give a double time aspect to domestic circumstances cracking under the weight of communal accusations and legal harassment.
The tall trees and interior dark brown wood panelling of the first act give way to the skeletal theatrical flaps in the second. These, alongside lighting by Chris Davy and an ingenious TV-style rumbling soundscape by Adrienne Quartly, cleverly and viscerally conjure up an entertainment industry caught up in processes over which it has no jurisdiction or influence.
The expansive performance of Tafler as the ruthlessly wily Judge Danforth, with his over-zealous sidekick Judge Hathorne (Patrick McKenzie), crosses the years and gives added heft to the layered effect.
So there is plenty of meat in this stylish production of The Crucible. At the start of the tour, it is already a gripping production, albeit some of the pacing needs to bed in. However Rintoul’s and the ensemble’s attention to detail extends to some beautifully-observed smaller roles: Diana Yekinni’s pleading yet indignant servant Tituba; David Kirkbridge’s wary clerk of the court, Carl Patrick’s bespectacled grey-suited predatory neighbouring farmer Thomas Putnam.
It’s a production that can have no bigger compliment than the spontaneous collective gasp from the audience, who clearly had never seen the play before, as John Proctor visibly seals his fate. Who can argue with that? It’s a green light from TLT and her motorised cohort in devilish reviewing.