Originally published on Whats On Stage
Over the years Bristol Old Vic became synonymous with presenting the UK premieres of Arthur Miller’s work, including his masterpiece The Crucible, in 1955. So with the centenary of Miller’s birth this year, it seems a fitting time for this play to be revived. Miller’s parable about the McCarthy witch hunts that were inflicting his homeland at the time of writing has lost none of its searing social commentary and indictments and in this straight bat production from Tom Morris, it cements its reputation as one of the great 20th century plays.
It starts with hysteria, the puritan world of Salem thrown into disarray by a gaggle of young girls dancing naked in the woods. A fear of teenage rebellion quickly escalates as the word ‘witchcraft’ is used and soon there is no going back; fingers are pointed and people classed guilty unless they can prove their innocence. In the days of trial by media these points are still prescient and Miller’s four act work is a model in form and construction, each act building slowly, gathering steam and ending on a hook to leave you in anticipation of what is to come next. It shows Miller would have created fine binge watching telly.
Caroline Steinbeis’ highly effective recent version at the Manchester Royal Exchange threw layer upon layer of device – contemporary clothes and a mud filled pit – to make the work sing but Morris is prepared to let the play speak for itself. So we get clearly delineated lines of argument and debate and a firm grasp on the storytelling along with well defined, three dimensional characters. What it lacks is visceral energy. At three and a half hours it’s a long night and the energy flags in the final act when it should be building to its crescendo. It’s a play that can afford this tell not show treatment, but it’s significant that the one moment that raises the hairs on the back of the neck is when Morris conjures up an image of the gates of hell opening up and swallowing accused and accusers alike whole.
In interview Miller flagged up that what he believed he would be best remembered for is creating great leading roles for actors. Though some of the work in supporting roles is a little patchy this train of thought is backed up in the strong work of its leading players; from Dean Lennox Kelly who imbues John Proctor with a sense of outer strength and inner turmoil, Neve McIntosh as his wife who in her stoicism becomes a fully-blown tragic heroine and Daniel Weyman as a man who finds his faith shaken as he views the façade of the show trials that befall Salem.
We judge our great plays on their relevance to the world around us and Miller hit the zeitgeist in identifying a world where the power of mob rule controls all and the rights of the individual is cancelled out by the braying hysteria of the whole. A strong production of one of the great works.