The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible now transfers to London’s Gielgud theatre after a successful run in Stratford. Written in response to the McCarthy communist hunts in the 1950s, Miller uses the historical basis of the Salem witchhunts three centuries earlier to create his ‘act of resistance’ against political and religious fear gone mad. Iain Glen steps into the farmer’s boots of John Proctor, Miller’s voice of reason in a time of madness. Caroline Bishop attended the first night…
Dominic Cooke’s production for the RSC begins with a depiction of a group of Salem teenage girls dancing in the woods – the singular event that sparks the spiral of accusation leading to the community’s decimation. Though merely bored and after a bit of harmless fun, the girls’ action is interpreted as witchcraft by a group of small-minded, God-fearing villagers who need something to blame for the hardship in their lives. The adults are pompous and self-important, and the two Reverends Hale (Robert Bowman) and Parris (Ian Gelder) seize on the opportunity to inflate their own egos and further impose their religious shackles on the community. The teenagers, scared about the consequences of their ‘sin’ of dancing, see a way out when the adults proffer up the notion of witchcraft and the good deed they would be doing by confessing and accusing others.
Miller illustrates the revenge factor of both the 1950s and 1690s witchhunts through the central triangle of John Proctor (Glen), his wife Elizabeth (Helen Schlesinger), and the manipulative Abigail (Elaine Cassidy), the ringleader of the teenage accusers. Spurned by Proctor, who had a brief affair with her, Abigail uses her new power in the court to take revenge on Proctor by accusing his wife of witchcraft, so hoping to hop into the marital bed after she is hanged for her ‘crimes’.
As the situation escalates, even the most devout of people cannot escape the accusations as the girls’ silly hysteria engulfs the town and is readily believed by the authorities. The religious extremism of Deputy Governor Danforth (James Laurenson), who heads the court, means that innocents must ‘confess’ in order to save their necks from the hangman, and he utters the famous line “A person is either with this court or he is against it”. To any reasonable person, embodied by Proctor, the situation seems ridiculous, but Miller clearly shows how fear overtook all reason in both eras, as it still can today.
Even without all the political implications and resonances of Miller’s play, The Crucible is simply a great story. Despite its length, the drama keeps a good pace and the RSC interprets some lines with a touch of humour that nicely offsets the tension. Miller’s dramatic conclusion is a satisfying end to a gripping piece of drama.