Review: The Crucible (His Majesty's Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
As soon as I entered His Majesty’s Theatre, this latest production of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece was in peril. Due to a rather foolish error on my part, I had to pay twice as much as I had intended for my ticket, and so had a slight grudge in my heart that demanded my money’s worth. Expectations were raised even higher as I had been let down the night before after making my way out to see “God of Carnage” at the ACT, only to find that the production was a red herring, having been cancelled several months earlier. What’s more, I had spent the previous year studying Yael Farber’s 2014 production as part of my Higher Drama course, which, to say the least, is soul-wrenchingly brilliant. As if that wasn’t enough, all my reviews have been four stars thus far, and in all honesty, a slightly more critical review would do good for the balance of my blog. So what did I think? ….I’m conflicted.
What struck me at first was the wonderful set design of the production. A revolving wooden floor was moved for each scene, being surrounded by links to what lay outside the room (trees in reference to the forest, hay in reference to Proctor’s farm), which was effective in showing the humbleness of life in Salem, but what really stood out was the walls and backdrop. Tall and imposing walls were essentially turned inside out, i.e. the boxy, light wooden side that was usually hidden now faced outwards to the audience, and was slowly but surely dismantled throughout the performance, in a visual metaphor for the structure of society breaking down, the widening holes in the prosecutors’ conviction of their “noble work”, Proctor’s gradual exposure to the cruel culture of the town and human nature as a whole from which he had been hiding for years, yadda yadda yadda. Point is, it meant whatever the individual audience members wanted it to mean, and still made creative sense, which I really enjoyed, with the electronic backdrop changed colour throughout the performance to set the tone. The costumes were less dazzling. The male actors were dressed in garments very traditional to that setting (kept in 17th century Massachusetts) and were in keeping with the characterisation, however, I found the colourful female costumes contrasted strangely with the setting, and threw the stage imagery off as it distracted from the serious tone.
A few key performances really stood out, and if one really wanted one could go to town analysing the performances of every single actor. For me, however, Jonathan Tafler as Judge Danforth brought an energy and fearful ferocity to his role that suited him perfectly. He kept the balance between being too theatrical to be convincing (as was, unfortunately, the case with Cornelius Clarke as Parris, who seemed a tad too involved in his own performance for his reactions to seem natural) and too subtle. Charlie Condou has been getting quite a lot of attention for his performance, despite only playing Reverend Hale instead of John Proctor. This, perhaps, is due to his recurring role on “Coronation Street”, and his portrayal was not immediately likeable, but grew on you as the play proceeded. His transformation was quite mesmerising and believable, and when I walked out I was glad he had been unlikable initially, so I could appreciate him in the end.
However, I was not convinced of all the performances. A minor grudge was the choice to have a colour blind performance, i.e. race is not a factor in casting. I take no issue with this when the play features no reference to racial roles, but this one does. It is a fleeting moment, granted, when Abigale moans about being treated like a black slave, but the impact of these words is somewhat lost when one considers that her niece, the daughter of a respected priest, is mixed race. But as I say, I can look past that. What I struggle to blink is Lucy Keirl as Abigale Williams. Though she played a child well, she seemed neither strong nor manipulative. Seeing as she is the puppeteer of the downfall of so many wives and the fabric and trust of Salem, it was disappointing that she seemed so whining, and that her short scene with Eoin Slattery as Proctor (a favourite moment of mine) was totally dry of any erotic atmosphere. Perhaps my teenage libido is more responsible for this disappointment than my creative differences, but considering how heavy “The Crucible” is, it would have been nice for that moment to have “a sense for heat”.
In most scenes, I felt the atmosphere was dealt with quite a heavy hand. Though Director Douglas Rintoul’s had his actors perfectly synchronised to give Miller’s beautifully lyrical script the reverence it deserves, his decision to project some stage directions and descriptions onto the blank walls was questionable. It was certainly original, at least to me, but I donate to be informed that “the curtain falls”, or else didn’t want to be directly told of Rebecca Nurse’s weighty influence on the town. Call me boring and stubborn, but I think a character’s weighty influence should be implied, shown in the respectful and gentle tones with which other characters address her, and how they are spaced around her. The same is true of the low booms that echoed around the theatre whenever a character entered the room, or when something important happened, just in case we hadn’t spotted. Perhaps it was trying to be fair to audience members who were not yet overly familiar with the play, but in my well-informed state, I found it patronising and frustratingly unnecessary.
The real problem I had with the production though, that brought my enjoyment of it far below where I wanted it to be, was Victoria Yeates performance as Elizabeth Proctor. She too has shared the spotlight with Condou, having appeared on BBC 1’s “Call the Midwife”, but I found her totally unrelatable and unpitiable in this production. Though some, my mother included, may disagree, I found that her argument with Proctor in the second scene lacking in tension and importance. By that, I mean that they were discussing ludicrous and life-threatening injustices in their community with the same weight as though Proctor had burnt dinner. Perhaps I exaggerate, but their squabble seemed far too modern, a time in which lovers are replaceable, rather than a relationship that they had to make work as in this particular time setting. Yeates nagging tone and ever-wagging finger made her seem cold. Make no mistake, I do not desire to like Elizabeth as a character. I just want to understand her, sympathise with her, empathise with her. Instead, her performance seems to be modelled around making the audience sympathise with John more than anything else, and using Elizabeth as a catalyst as opposed to a character. Her own “transformation” into a loving and regretful up-the-spout wife did not change my opinion of her.
So, Rintoul’s production has its strengths and weaknesses, and none quite topple it into a category of good or bad. What I can say for certain is that walking out if it, there was no regret in me for seeing it, and I like to think that it is a story with relationships so timeless that anyone could enjoy it. (but it's best not to take my word for that. I suspect that the dozens of secondary school pupils that formed most of the audience would disagree.) I think that overall I liked the play itself more than the production, but it was an adequate vehicle to re-acquaint me with it. What's more, The closing moment of nooses descending from the rafters followed by a decisive black out gave me shivers, and I can’t ask for much more than that to finish a play. Three stars.