The Crucible, dir. Caroline Steinbeis – The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
First performed in 1953 Arthur Miller’s play has quickly become a cultural touchstone, becoming a fixture of GCSE and A-Level syllabi and beloved by undergraduate and repertory theatre companies for its wide casting and political themes. Therefore, the challenge or any new production is to find some way of making an audience that will have some degree of familiarity with the text engage with it or see it in a new way. Typically, productions tend to fall into two distinct types – a rather heavy-handed slice of American realism, all Puritan bonnets and shouting, or alternatively a more abstract and experimental reinterpretation such as the Wooster Group’s (in)famous minimalist 1984 production. Caroline Steinbeis newest production for the Royal Exchange is somewhat successful attempt at re-dressing this classic text to help audiences see it through fresh eyes.
To this end, the production is touched with quietly stylish Brechtian flourishes – the stage is a grey circle pit of concrete, rimmed with a circle of white light. Costumes are kept minimal and generic, with the female characters clad in the ‘modesty dresses’ common to many strict orthodox Christian sects. We are not in Salem here, but rather exposed to the universal fragility of a community stripped of place and too many extraneous possessions. Crucially the house lights are often not fully dimmed and with the play staged in the round the viewer becomes increasingly drawn in as something more than just a passive spectator. The tension between audience and congregation, audience and voyeur, audience and jury is one well established and speaks to a creative team with a singular and compelling vision of the play.
The potential cost of such a Brecht influenced staging is that without costume or props production rests solely upon the cast and the script – the actors here have nowhere to hide. Happily, Steinbeis has assembled a talented group of performers, all of whom seem willing to take the same risks that the performance does. Stephen Kennedy is a fine bloviating fire-breathing Reverend Parris, all fundamentalist rage that doesn’t quite disguise his increasing panic. Among the supporting cast Tim Steed does the finest work as the bookish, moral Rev John Hale (who enters carrying his books of demon lore in a reusable jute shopping bag) increasingly unsure of his role in bringing God’s justice to this small community. The ever-reliable Peter Guinness brings a compelling blend of both gentle fatherly authority and strict adherence to the letter of the law to Governor Danforth and Sam Cox as Gile Corey and Ria Zmitrowicz as Mary Warren do very well too, frequently bringing out the gallows humour of the plays script.
Among the leads Rachel Redford is a revelation as Abigail Williams adding genuine depth, pathos and a deep streak of vicious cruelty to a character all too often made to be a shallow, jealous caricature. Jonjo O’Neill plays John Proctor as a fundamentally decent, very ordinary man struggling with the plays themes of trust, forgiveness and community. Whilst a straightforward kind of man, still burdened by his mistakes, O’Neill brings enough presence and vocal heft to carry Proctor’s speeches and arguments though the moments of Sturm und Drang are less interesting than the plays quieter moments. Exchanges between Proctor and his wife (wonderfully and sensitively played by Matti Houghton) are exemplary; passion and speech take a second place to the real subtlety of both actors. Both O’Neill and Houghton forcefully remind the audience that the play is about not just the suspicions of a wider community but the small familial unit that can be so fragile. Their scenes together are loaded with pregnant silences, with beautifully held tension and so much conveyed with as little as a sigh or sift in Houghton’s expression.
If there can be a criticism of the production as a whole the same holds true – whilst the great moments of the play are all handled with great aplomb and each character involved performs with great vigour the silences, the quitter moments and the held image are where this production really shines. The moments of aside – where two characters talk softly, where characters are alone on stage are genuinely captivating whilst the pyrotechnics of conflict, argument and speech are extremely well handled and choreographed they feel less involving. It’s perhaps this which explains why it’s Tim Steed’s Hale which sticks longest in the memory as this softly spoken and deeply spiritual character comes in a quiet and deeply serious way to realise the extent of his mistake. He exits with the line ‘I quit this court’ uttered when he is almost off stage. We next see him as a bare footed penitent figure, praying with those condemned – urging them not to confess for their salvation but so they might escape the hangman’s noose. The quiet images this play puts forth linger long in the mind after the echoes of the great speeches have faded. The most powerful is at the climax of act three, where Proctor fails in his attempt to expose Abigail’s lies and Elizabeth, fearing for her husband covers up his lechery. Proctor is left alone in the middle of the stage, surrounded by vengeful and suspicious authority figures. All of a sudden, water appears under his feet as the stage slowly floods, and we get to see Proctor drown on dry land.
The flooded stage makes the final section set in a prison a little clumsy, but allows for some nice nods to character. The judge and governor wade through the water in the waterproofs whilst the ministers, Proctor, and Elizabeth slosh about in their normal clothes. The image is deeply resonant of the baptismal font, as here instead of going up out of the water to new life, Proctor and the saintly Rebecca Nurse are carried up the gallows. The play closes with Elizabeth and Hale alone on a darkened stage, soaked with water, stripped of their religious pretensions and practises, yet forced to go on living. Whilst the artifice and the symbolism of the staging may prove to be distracting for many this production creates powerful images that stay with the viewer long after they’ve left the theatre.