Theatre review - The Crucible, Manchester Opera House
PUBLISHED: 15:16 09 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:16 09 May 2017
The Crucible, currently on stage at Manchester Opera House, is a superb production of this timelessly gripping play. Go and see it, recommends Kate Houghton.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play set in 15th century Salem during the infamous witch trials, is as relevant today as it was when written, during the McCarthy communist ‘witch trials’ of 1950’s America…and indeed today, when it seems we are prepared to believe any number of ‘post-truths’ or ‘alternative facts’, as long as they fit with our rapidly narrowing world view.
Not withstanding any of the above, this is a brilliant play performed by an excellent cast and stands strong as pure, great storytelling regardless of any allegorical meaning we may seek to place upon it. I must confess, it was this very desire to seek the layers of meaning in great literature that frustrated me when studying English literature at A Level and later at university. We should be allowed to simply enjoy a good story, well told, without seeking to plumb the depths of the writer’s tangential thinking. And last night, I absolutely did.
The tale starts in a teen girl’s bedroom, as she lies asleep in her bed, seemingly unable to wake after being discovered dancing in the woods at midnight, by her pastor father, who sees no more than the potential ending of his reputation and career. Already passions run high, as he seeks to know what happened from his orphaned niece, recently fired from her role as a maid-of-all-work at a nearby farm, for reasons which later become clear. She, like all young people, seeks to avoid trouble through denial of any wrongdoing and is soon given an avenue down which to escape when a hysterical neighbour, damaged through the loss of seven babies, offers witchcraft as an explanation.
A positive maelstrom ensues and events quickly get out of hand; silences are kept and any admissions of pretence become impossible to make as the snowball of accusations, indictments and trials gathers pace and volume until a tragic conclusion is reached and people start to die.
The cast is very good. Our first teen accuser, Abigail Williams, played by Lucy Keirl, almost vibrates with the fear of being caught, but soon settles into her role as chief victim. Tense, controlling…a fury for vengeance, Lucy’s Abigail is unlikeable from the first moment to the last – and that’s not just because we know her story. The scene where she and her three co-accusers have a group vision and terrify fellow teen Mary, who is attempting to come clean and admit to the fraud, is startlingly real and it’s momentarily clear why superstitious settlers in a still wild and foreign land would fall for the lies and fantasies of those seen to be still children, and therefore innocent.
In contrast, the object of her fury, John Proctor, played by Eoin Slattery, is immediately likeable; the only sane voice in a rising hubbub of hysteria. His realisation that his own actions, the seduction and then rejection of young Abigail, have led to his wife being accused as a witch, and his gradual, painful path to integrity and truth bring the audience to a moment of breathlessness, as we wait on his decision – live as a liar, or die as a righteous man. His earlier exhortations to “Do that which is good and no harm can come to thee”, quoted from the Bible, having proven to be meaningless in the face of men determined not to be proven fools.
Proctor’s wife is played by Call the Midwife’s Victoria Yeates, who gives a strong performance as a woman ashamed of her husband’s infidelity, who through the single lie told in her entire lifetime then unwittingly sentences him to death.
Charlie Condou, well-known for his role in Coronation Street as Marcus Dent, plays Reverend Hale in this performance. I admit not to being blown away, but then it’s a difficult role in which to make an impact. His initial role as witchfinder soon palls, as he begins to realise a deeper truth, to suspect a fraud is being played upon the town. From this point on however he is constantly interrupted, dismissed and ignored by those in charge. Condou plays his part with a quite sensitivity, but when all around him are shouting and past the point of reason, it’s a tough challenge to stand out in any way. As the voices of reason, he and Proctor are overwhelmed by those who stand to gain, or at least not lose, by everything that is happening and who simply cannot retreat from the position they have assumed.
It’s a great story, beautifully written and, here performed with skill and passion, and I can see why it has so easily stood the test of time; it seems little has changed in 300 years.
Go. Enjoy. Learn. Think.
Until 13 May 2017