Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is such a powerful play that it leaves you stunned and breathless no matter how many times you have seen it. The current production by the National Theatre of Great Britain in the Olivier Theatre has the same effect.
The play is ostensibly about the witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 but its immediate inspiration was the witch hunts conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950’s in their relentless search for Communists. Miller was imprisoned for failing to disclose the names of people who were communists or leftists. Witch hunts are ever-present in American life today.
Lyndsey Turner directs a lean and highly focused production in the Olivier theatre that concentrates on the fate of the simple people of the village. They are caught in the morass of hysteria, bigotry and greed in a theocratic society terrified of the Antichrist. For the people of Salem, witches and Satan were real and had to be fought with devotion and dedication.
The problem in The Crucible starts when Reverent Samuel Parris (Nick Fletcher), the local preacher discovers that his daughter is inexplicably ill. She and the village girls participated in a dance in the woods near the village and may have performed some pagan rituals like dancing.
The village begins to buzz with the idea of witchcraft. Fletcher’s Parris is a small man, afraid for his position in the village and full of hatred and bigotry. Fletcher gives us a truly loathsome man.
With the town girls going hysterical, Parris invites Reverend John Hale (Fisayo Akinade), a learned man and an expert in diagnosing the existence of witchcraft, to come and investigate. Hale takes his expertise in the subject seriously and goes about investigating with zeal. In the end he realizes that the trials and executions of the villagers of Salem are indeed a witch hunt in the modern sense and he tries to instill some humanity into the proceedings. He fails but we sympathize with the presence of a decent man who is able to see the truth in the midst of hell.
The most frightful people are Judge Hathorne (Henry Everett) and Deputy Governor Danforth (Matthew Marsh). They are powerful characters, convinced of their righteousness and are warriors against Satan. Everett and Marsh gave such stunning performances, one was terrified of them even as characters on stage. The people of Salem did not stand a chance in these paragons of evil dressed in the guise of devout Christians fighting against the Antichrist. Shivers up your spine.
The hero of the play is John Proctor (Brendan Cowell), a decent farmer, a man who committed adultery, and is caught in the maelstrom of hysteria and bigotry. He tries to save his wife Elizabeth (tautly performed by Eileen Walsh) and his life but to do that he must give up his name or his integrity and sense of decency. He is sent to the gallows as are so many other villagers. Kudos to Cowell for a superb performance.
The hysterical children led by the master of hysterical and devious pretense Abigail (Erin Doherty) are as scary as anyone because they pretend to have to have seen Satan.
As you enter the Olivier Theatre, you see that the stage is engulfed by rain. Real rain that necessitates the people in the rows closest to the stage to wear plastic covers. The rain stops when the performance begins, of course, but it is repeated after intermission.
The set by Es Devlin is sparse using only tables and chairs and a bed where needed. Spotlights are used where the action takes place and almost nothing more. As I said, the director wants us to concentrate on what is happening to the people without being distracted by stage sets or props. There is no real indication about era when the play takes place. It could be in 1692 and it could be almost any time in history. And this outstanding production of a great play gives us an extraordinary example of how it can happen.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller continues until November 5, 2022, at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/