There seems no more appropriate setting for The Crucible than among the trees of Regent’s Park. The leafy surroundings, the encroaching darkness and even the blossom showering the stage help set the mood for Arthur Miller’s harrowing drama.
When young Abigail and her friends talk about cavorting in the woods, their story is stronger for the trees that surround them; when it is said that one girl flew, an aeroplane passing above the park lends a convenient soundtrack. OK, the plane is hardly appropriate for a play set in Salem in the 1690s, but it sparked a ripple of laughter among the press night audience last night.
Director Timothy Sheader’s choice of The Crucible for the opening show of the Open Air theatre’s 2010 season may seem an unusual one for a venue that often presents comedy musicals and Shakespeare’s lighter fare, but in fact the outdoor setting provides Sheader with the perfect backdrop for his stripped-back staging.
His masterstroke is to have the Salem girls, who spark off the witch-hunt that is to devastate the town, present almost constantly during the play. When not part of the action onstage, the girls sit on tree stumps scattered at each side. Like strange nymphs caught under a spell, they remain mostly silent and still, suddenly coming to life to mimic the actions of characters onstage. When part of the action themselves, Liam Steel’s clever choreography evokes just how strong the spell of peer pressure can be. In the scenes when they accuse their neighbours of witchcraft, the girls move like one crazed being, with ringleader Abigail pulling their strings.
It is inherent to the heartbreaking tragedy of Miller’s play that these scenes, which to the outsider seem faintly ridiculous, are believed by many of the characters in the play. Of course the girls are pretending, of course there are no witches. But Miller deftly shows how fear, scaremongering, religious evangelicalism and myth can lead so quickly, so devastatingly, to the opposite conclusion, resulting in innocent people being tried and condemned. It is not hard to see Miller’s point in writing this as a response to the McCarthy communist trials of the 1960s.
Among the cast, Patrick O’Kane is swarthy and masculine as John Proctor, the straight-talking farmer whose affair with former maid Abigail fuels the accusations, and Emma Cunniffe gives his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, a strong dignity. Emily Taaffe, as Abigail, has one touching moment when she is left onstage, alone and weeping, to show some regret for the way her actions have spiralled.
Oliver Ford Davies’s Judge Danforth and Philip Cumbus’s Reverend Hale adeptly show the moral divisions that tear apart the community, while Susan Engel is the angelic Rebecca Nurse, who won’t compromise herself even when facing death.
That is the dilemma left to John Proctor in the final scene of the play. As the night air chills the skin and Proctor and his wife loom out of the darkness, Miller shows the human tragedy at the heart of this story of witchcraft and trickery.