Any production of “The Crucible” always has one huge advantage from the beginning, and that is a wonderful script by Arthur Miller. Oddly enough though, that script can also be its curse because you need a skilled director and cast to do this play any justice, and any weakness in anyone in this chain will be exposed so easily. The Lyceum has no worries on any of these counts with this production (part of the Lyceum’s 50th year celebrations). Directed by John Dove and a strong cast all putting in great performances, this is simply a great piece of theatre to watch and listen to, and as with all Arthur Miller’s work you really have to listen as the power of this work is in the dialogue. Arthur Miller was without doubt one of the great wordsmiths of the 20th century.
“The Crucible”, as with most of the great works for theatre out there, is a story being told on more than one level, and although this story was written and set in the Salem witch trial of the 1690s, it was written by Arthur Miller in 1953 as an allegory of the American “McCarthy Un-American Activities Trials” of that period (Miller himself was convicted by Congress for refusing to name those he had met at a meeting).
This work is partly fictional but firmly based on the infamous witch trials of colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. This is an America that is still under British colonial rule and the town of Salem is a town of Puritans who have fled England and the persecution of King Charles I to establish their own colony and have their own religious freedoms. Here they live in a semi-autonomous province where strict observance to the word of God is law and in doing so create the closest thing “The Americas” ever saw to a theocracy. Also in absolute belief (because they are mentioned in the Bible) here is the belief in witches and that Satan himself is on earth trying to corrupt the good.
The witch accusations really start in the Preacher’s house – Reverend Parris (Greg Powrie). Greg plays the part of the very worldly “Man of God” whose worldly demands upon his flock have made him very unpopular with many. Parris has caught his daughter and some other local girls – including his niece Abigail Williams (Meghan Tyler) dancing (a forbidden pastime anyhow) in the woods and with the help of his Barbados born slave Tituba (Anne Odeke) trying to summon up the spirits of the dead. His daughter Betty is “bewitched” and unable to wake up, and when she does she and some of the younger girls start to name –with a good bit of help from “witch specialist” the Reverend John Hale (Richard Conlon) other women in the village that they have seen with the Devil. Only four to start with are named, but soon the courthouse is full as deputy Governor Danforth (Ron Donachie) is brought in to oversee such an important outbreak.
Soon no one is safe and you are either with or against the courts. Well respected figures of previously unreproachable repute are soon brought down – including Giles Corey (David Beames), John and Elizabeth Proctor (Philip Cairns and Irene Allan) and Rebecca Nurse (Joanna Tope) amongst many others
Many personal scores to settle are at work here too as the young girls fuelling all this hysteria get so far down the road of their pretence that they cannot back down from their positions or accusations, and fuelling everything is chief accuser Abigail Williams who has some very personal accusations to make against someone to get her own ends. Also at work is a monetary land grab by certain people as anyone convicted of witchcraft loses all claims to their land.
This is a great performance by everyone on stage and I highlight only a few in this review due to space. One of the great parts in this play is of course Deputy Governor Danforth, and Ron Donachie excels in this part as a man who just will not back down even in the face of new evidence. He is the law and no one and nothing will change him from his duty to God and the law (and they are pretty much one in his eyes). Danforth is a frightening figure of absolute power and complete arrogance.
Richard Conlon as Reverend John Hale is also an interesting character and we watch him move from a man absolutely convinced of his learned evaluation of events at the start, to his questioning of not only the law but his faith as he watches the small events unfold into the destruction of the town as farm animals are untended and crops left to ruin because so many people are now in jail.
“The Crucible” is a powerful piece of theatre on many levels and is a warning to us all of how hysteria when coupled with legislative power can make anyone a victim and destroy a society.
The events at Salem were very important in American history and one of the main reasons why when it was finally formed the new United States of America separated church law and legislative law in their constitution.
Watching this play can be disturbing at times, but even more disturbing is a little news item I watched on the internet last week of an aid worker feeding a starving five year old little girl that had been abandoned in Nigeria. Why had she been abandoned – people had accused her of being a witch.
In the 21st century, the belief in witches is obviously still very strong and the many issues raised in this work whether they be in 17th century Salem, 1950s United States of America or present day politics are still happening and still need writers like Arthur Miller to put them under a spotlight for examination.
Review by Tom King