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REVIEW: The Crucible at The Bristol Old Vic, 27/10/15

The Crucible had its European premier at the Bristol Old Vic in 1954, now more than half a century later it is experiencing its triumphant homecoming.

Artistic Director Tom Morris’ decision to shirk modernisation in favour of a traditional interpretation highlights the play’s timelessness as a moral allegory. This is a performance which is simple and honest; it emphasises the universality of Miller’s message by letting the frankness of his language speak for itself. 

Written at the height of the McCarthyist witch-hunts in 1950s America, The Crucible plots the brutal self-destruction of a fragile theocratic community in Salem, Massachusetts during the 1690s.

(Photo credit: The Stage)

Set designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ has used traditional costumes, foliage and soft hazed lighting to conjure up an archetypical Puritan settlement on the brink of a wooden wilderness. The stage is spooky and enigmatic: the kind of place you’d expect to find witches weaving magic.

However, what emerges as truly terrifying is not the threat of witchcraft, but rather the paranoia, secrecy and suspicion with which the characters treat one another. The performance evokes a pervasive atmosphere of judgement and danger, which is compounded by Morris’ ingenious decision to include on-stage seating in court style docks.

I was one of the audience members seated in the “court room” and was struck by how it transformed my role from audience member to an unofficial juror, compelled but unable to speak out against the corruption and false testimony unfolding before me. Indeed during the Proctors’ questioning, where Miller illustrates his exceptional command of dramatic irony, it was all I could do to stop myself from calling out.

Dean Lennox Kelly is superb as John Proctor. Rugged, solemn and endearingly honest, he cuts a powerful figure of guilt and agonised desire, flawed but ultimately the “good man” that he so desperately wishes to be perceived as.

For me, Neve McIntosh gave the performance of the evening as Goody Proctor, Kelly’s falsely accused and virtuous wife. McIntosh’s portrayal is sympathetic precisely because she resists playing the victim: strong, tender, unflinchingly protective and principled even in the face of an unjust death, she truly makes her husband a better man.

Rona Morrison captures the essence of the play’s dissembling villain Abigail, haughty, lustful and unpredictable, her callous exploitation comes as no surprise.  Nonetheless, she occasionally strays into stereotype and overacting, a criticism which could also be levelled Jude Akuwudike, whose performance seemed forced at times.

(Photo credit: The Times)

But despite these minor weaknesses in acting, Morris’ interpretation of The Crucible is thoroughly engaging and ruthless in its emphasis. It is a revival that seems apt considering the eerie similarities between the fraudulency and hypocrisy of the community in Salem, and today’s political culture of spin and propaganda. Proctor’s question “is the accuser always right?” stands out, but fails to garner much hope. We know from our experience of the modern world that this is a fallacy which has become too huge to falter and will by necessity be maintained, even at the expense of human life.

This is a production which illuminates the catastrophe that ensues when a society allows itself to be governed by fear and insecurity. It works so as to turn a mirror upon the audience in order to show how injustice still happens right in front of us and how often, too often, our response remains tragically paralysed.

The Crucible is showing at the Bristol Old Vic until the 7th Nov, tickets range from £7.50 – £34 (plus booking fee) and can be bought via the Box Office on 01179877877 or online at http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/eventdetails?webEventId=crucible

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