In my experience, when you’re a lover of books and English Literature was your best subject at school, certain texts will follow you around into life post your studies. One such text for me is Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. When I first encountered the play in the later years of secondary school, I did enjoy it but I think my issue was with the fact that we had to study it: it’s the kind of thing I enjoy reading, but taking it apart and analysing it to within in an inch of its life, took away a massive part of its power for me personally, at least at the time. When I started at university a couple of years ago, I rediscovered the play and began to sense my feelings towards it change, and I fell completely and utterly in love with it. It features everything I enjoy reading: rich and complex characters, visceral imagery and subject matter that challenges me to think, and though it unsettles me, I can’t bring myself to stop reading.
Miller’s play is a partly fictionalised account of the Salem Witch Trials that took place in Massachusetts in 1692 and 3, and is an allegory of McCarthyism in the US, where the Government blacklisted accused communists. Lust and superstition bring personal grievances to light, fuelling a terrifying combination of mass hysteria and false accusations that threaten to rip one tight knit community apart. Yaël Farber’s new production is currently running at the Old Vic, and was my first outing to that theatre, and though now a week on, I’m amazed at the intensity with which it has got under my skin and stayed with me. If I was able, I’d up and go and see it tomorrow because it was quite simply one of the most mesmerising and powerful things I’ve ever watched.
As this was my first visit to the Old Vic, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the space, but I did immediately know that the production being in the round was a stroke of genius: it meant that from beginning to end the audience are immersed in the action, which I felt only added to the haunting, gripping effect of the piece. To be able to see across the space in your peripheral vision and see fellow audience members as glued to the action as you are is something really special, it made me feel like I was really watching a theatrical event, a spectacle. Even before you take your seat; it’s amazing what the Creative team have done to help create the ambience, special mentions first must go to Designer Soutra Gilmour, and Lighting Designer Tim Lutkin: I loved how all the gilding on the theatre boxes is covered by draping, and the auditorium is all eerily lit. Other members of the team I want to single out are Richard Hammarton, whose Music & Sound gave me the most wonderful goosebumps throughout and Imogen Knight, whose Movement, especially between scenes and at the beginning of the play is some of the most creative and unique I’ve ever seen.
I read recently that the title of the play could be interpreted as a metaphor for the literary technique in which characters are placed in inescapable situation and forced through conflict. As such, the play in its entirety runs at 3 hours 30, and it is no doubt completely emotionally draining, but I for one whilst a little incredulous (and panic stricken as I had an evening show to get to) at the running time when I first heard, eventually forgot about how long I’d been sat in the theatre because I was so enthralled by what was going on. Even at the interval I was thinking: ‘I’ve been here two hours already? Wow’ and that is a complete compliment to this powerhouse of a cast, led by Richard Armitage. I usually find it very easy to single out my favourite performances, but it was much, much harder in this instance. I’ll talk about a few that really stuck with me, but I want to say that the entire cast are superb and I hope I have the opportunity to see more of their work on stage in future, I would consider it an honour.
As I say, Richard Armitage leads the cast as John Proctor. Having only seen Richard’s work on screen and being a fan of what I’ve seen thus far (which is admittedly not as much as I’d like) I was very excited at the prospect at seeing him onstage, and can think of no other praise to give him other than I think he is a revelation in the role.
From his very first entrance, he commanded and captivated my attention. In a recent interview he did for BBC News (which can be read in its entirety here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-28104957 ), he describes playing Proctor as: ‘a full body experience; It’s as much in my body and very much less in my head than I’ve ever been before in any role’. I admire this description very much, because for me it works on a couple of levels. One, it shows the sheer commitment and intensity that in my opinion anyway, he is able to bring to the role in bucket loads; he gets it and for those 3 and a half hours allows himself to be completely filled up and transported into the headspace of that character, even when he had his back to me I was feeling and believing everything he said. Two, it alludes to something I loved about the his role: it has moments of impressive physicality including a brilliant tussle with Abigail (Samantha Colley) when John is rebuffing her advances, there was a moment when Samantha leaps at his back and Richard spins her around in a circle before throwing her off. Samantha’s shins ended up so close to my footplates I gasped because I feared she’d hurt herself, or at the very least fall into my lap. I looked up and for a brief few seconds shared eye contact with Richard. His face was so fierce and eyes so intense that I forgot completely that he was acting and felt a mixture of fear and the sheer anger that he was radiating in those few moments. Therein we also have a third thing I love about Richard’s description of the role: watching him challenged me to focus on more than the lines he was saying, and use my eyes as well as my ears to do so. I had to take in what he was saying of course and listen, but also listen to how it was being said and watch his body language, only then would I get the full effect of what he was trying to achieve. His performance was the perfect mix of ferocity and this beautiful quiet, tragic intensity, perfect for the journey his character goes on throughout the play. If I had to single out two of favourite moments, they would be his famous speech:
‘Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’
And his later speech in the same scene, where he replies to Hale:
‘I can. And there’s your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.’
Herein is the essence of his character: he is a man who is haunted by his past actions and the web of lies and hatred that is going on around him, but finds a sense of goodness in his choice for redemption. Even though I was fully aware of how the play ended, I was still moved to tears, especially during his last exchange with his wife.
I love how the stage descriptions describe Abigail Williams: ‘a strikingly beautiful girl, an orphan, with an endless capacity for dissembling’. She is ferocious, cold, contemptuous, and Samantha Colley gave what I felt to be a mesmerising performance. I believe this production is her professional debut, and can only say that if her standard here is anything to go by, she is destined for great things and I wish her every success. She is one of those performers that is immediately able to capture my attention, and she doesn’t even have to speak a word, because her body language and facial expressions speak volumes. Abigail is one of those characters where it is always easy to tell how she is feeling, but Samantha is able to make the more subtle nuances equally important. I loved every single scene she was in, particularly the 3rd Act, where she causes chaos in the courtroom and once again tips the balance of power in her favour. What I loved about her character most though, is that despite her personality and actions, she is desperately, completely in love with John Proctor and that makes her understandable and relatable, to some degree.
Jack Ellis and Adrian Schiller were marvellous as Deputy Governor Danforth and Reverend Hale, respectively. From the minute he came on stage, Jack just radiated this imposing presence, complete with great booming voice to match. I was immediately drawn into his world, that of a man who will hold fast to the rules and regulations of his office, even when he seems fully aware of the falsity going on around him, because if he relents, he will look weak. I was wondering whether I was supposed to sympathise with him in that position, but I did have a tremendous amount of respect for him and loved how Jack played it.
When I look at John Proctor’s journey in the play and his finding redemption, for me that provides an interesting parallel with Reverend Hale, whose faith is shaken by proceedings. He ends the play a broken man, and it’s a beautiful and tragic journey to watch him go on. I particularly loved his turning point in Act Three where he denounces proceedings and walks out of court. I found myself wanting to cheer at his courage, and felt throughout Adrian gave wonderful depth and colour to a character that hasn’t before left a truly profound impression on me.
Yes, it’s long and emotionally draining, but aside from the powerhouse cast what I loved about the production was that it resonated with me when I thought about society today: human nature is a complex thing, and will be influenced by those around us and the situations we find ourselves in; and as this production shows, that can sometimes be a very troubling thought. I urge everybody to get down to The Old Vic before September 13 and experience it for yourself.