Friday 22 August 2014

The Crucible

Old Vic, London

16th August, 2014, matinee

Yael Farber’s spine-tingling, atmospheric production of Arthur Miller’s parable play is powerfully performed and prompts you to think about modern day witch hunts.

In an interview with Richard Eyre, Arthur Miller stresses that he hopes audiences would reflect how they lived their lives after watching The Crucible. The play was written during the McCarthyism period in the 1950s: a period of madness, he recalls, in which even radical teachers were fired with ‘no trial, nothing. Just accused of something and they’ve gone’.[1] However by setting the play in Salem during the witch trials will mean that the play transcends time so it can resonate with senseless accusations of any community in any time. Watching the Old Vic production reminded me of the recent culture of celebrity witch hunts and radical immigration beliefs. The following lines, for example, ring just as true and relevant now:
Hale: We cannot blink it more. There is a prodigious fear of this court in the country.
Danforth: Then there is a prodigious guilt in the country. Are you afraid to be questioned here?
Hale: I may only fear the Lord sir. But there is fear in the country nevertheless.
‘These are strange times’, says Hale of the denouncing in Salem, where gossip can turn to a charge of witchcraft, for which they could hang if they deny. The fear felt by the community of such accusations (perhaps started through rumour and hatred) reminds us how urgent this play can be.

The in-the-round layout may not always be the best for sight lines, but it is incredibly immersive. Sitting on stage level (in a cosy side-stalls crevice) feels like you’re in the action, which is only heightened by dressing the auditorium’s plushness in drabs of material and an atmospheric haze. Yet it is also voyeuristic at times, especially in the final act when burnt black leaves fall from the ceiling and it’s as if we are peering through the forest trees. It’s extremely effective and chilling. After seeing Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, this production may not have stripped away the detail of the setting, but the effect is just as raw and relevant.

Richard Armitage may be the name on the poster, and he certainly plays John Proctor with verve and earthiness, but this is an ensemble piece, with the entire cast impressing. Armitage is thoughtful and strong as Proctor, as well as being passionately fierce when shouting to keep hold of his name and therefore identity. Act’s three and four are certainly the most charged, and even though there are times when you are aware of actors shouting and spitting at each other, these performances have been finely pitched. Jack Ellis as Judge Danforth powerfully plays his court room scenes excellently to the whole auditorium as if the audience were implicit as witnesses, and Michael Thomas nicely expresses pious anxiety over accusations of witch craft in the first act. Samantha Colley successfully portrays the fraudulent ringleader Abigail Williams with a hint of childish tittle-tattling which then heightens the disbelief that it gets taken for the gospel truth. Plus, Adrian Schiller and Anna Madely provide an air of darkness and mystery as the persistent and then broken Reverend John Hale and the loyal wife Elizabeth Proctor. There is also fine support from Harry Attwell, Natalie Gavin and Sarah Niles but this is a very strong cast that give this production thrilling performances.

The opening image of the cast with chairs that are scattered about the stage before the play begins provides a tableau that prompts thought on a community driven to suspicion and the second-guessing of neighbours’ behaviour. But above all, it is Miller’s potent language that remains the most provoking. There have only been a couple of times when I’ve heard audiences gasp at a play: Howard Davies’ excellent production of All My Sons, and at characters’ double standards in this production.

After last seeing the disappointing Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, it’s great to see the theatre back on form. This is a top production of one of the seminal plays from the 20th century.

The Crucible runs at the Old Vic until 13th September.

[1] 122, Arthur Miller in Richard Eyre, Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People (2012).

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Scotland Decides: State of a Nation

The Finborough Theatre is to stage a season of plays next month dedicated to the Scottish Independence Referendum, a season which apparently is the "only one of its kind" in England. The limited season, entitled Scotland Decides, lasts for 4 weeks and includes three English premieres of Scots works and a new play by leading 'Yes' campaigner Alan Bissett.

Artistic Director Neil McPherson has said that there is a current lack in the amount of theatre responding to the vote:

"I was profoundly surprised though to see how little the English theatre is responding to the vote. As the BBC says, 'There are more Scots in England than any city in Scotland... more than the population of Edinburgh or Glasgow.'"

There may be not enough plays in England which tackle the Independence vote directly however there are many  plays which tackle similar issues. Some say that one possible effect from Scotland gaining independence is that England’s identity will weaken, and without the strong Celtic ties that Wales and Scotland can boast, England's face will be in danger.

Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling (2006), Parlour Song and Jerusalem (both 2009 in the UK) all have rural or suburban settings which present England that have a rawness which is compromised by globalisation and mass media. The Winterling’s Dartmoor setting and Jerusalem’s Wiltshire forest clearing setting presents an England which is wild and still in touch with its ancient origins. Yet England’s individualism is then made problematic by an onslaught of Coca-Cola, St George’s Day pageants which celebrate an X Factor culture, and a uniformity of the landscape. Parlour Song, on the other hand, is the antithesis in some ways to Jerusalem, where the middle class, Middle England, middle aged Ned is arguably a weak, unsuccessful product of the identical houses which make up the lifeless setting. It is clear that England is presented as a binary of the old and the new, and perhaps that its identity is under strain.

Rory Mullarkey’s new play The Wolf from the Door (soon to open at the Royal Court Upstairs) also explores Middle England and sees the characters try to ‘change the country forever’ and even Richard Bean’s satire romp Great Britain (soon to be transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Lucy Punch taking over Billie Piper’s role) hints at the interest with the tabloids as being a national worry.

After years of clinging onto the ‘Great Britain’/ ‘United Kingdom’ tag, if Scotland does win independence, then perhaps England’s future identity will be put into question, hence the need and great hunger for contemporary plays which explore the state of the nation. As for the Scottish plays at the Finborough, the brevity of the season perhaps reveals that there isn’t much of an interest in the vote. The real interest lies in its result and its potential effect on the countries involved.

The Scotland Decides season runs from 2nd – 18th September at the Finborough Theatre, with the election also on 18th September.