The real life lessons of Salem
“The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn towards greater individual freedom.”
Even as a play with no allegorical sub text, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a strong play about the real life Salem witch trials in 1692. But when you factor in the land grabbing opportunity presented by a neighbour convicted of witchcraft and the 20th century McCarthyite “witch hunt” for those of a socialist or communist persuasion, it is a great play.
Last seen at the Old Vic, Yaël Farber’s The Crucible is hard to forget and I am not sure why that production came in at 40 minutes longer than this one. Lyndsey Turner could direct this play standing on her head and as John Proctor, she has interestingly cast the Australian actor Brendan Cowell. I last saw him in 2017 in the brilliant Yerma at the Young Vic alongside Billie Piper.
As his antagonist Abigail Williams is Erin Doherty who leapt to stardom as Princess Anne in Netflix’s The Crown. When looking at Abigail Williams’s background, this is the first time I recall the narrative that both her parents were killed in an attack by Native Americans. She lives now with her uncle, the mercenary Reverend Samuel Parris (Nick Fletcher) but she had been the maidservant to John and Elizabeth Proctor (Eileen Walsh) before being dismissed. She is dismissed because Elizabeth Proctor suspects that she has designs on her husband John.
Lyndsey Turner’s production, like her production of Faith Healer at the Donmar, has the stage drowned in atmospheric rainwater on several occasions at the beginning and closing of the two act play. Unlike many of the Puritan clad descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims, the young girls are not dressed in dark colours but in sprigged cotton, more like Little House on the Prairie than the men in dark clothes and the ministers and judges in black robes with white collars. Catherine Fay is the costume designer.
Es Devlin’s sets are naturalistic and in period so we can believe that we are in a seventeenth century house. There is ecclesiastical music, again very pretty but in a play that shows the ugliness of hysteria and peer pressure to conform. Tim Lutkin’s lighting is often candle lit in this society where they rose with the sun and went to bed after dusk.
Erin Doherty gives an excellent performance, she is as manipulative and scheming as she is mendacious. She aches for John Proctor as he refuses to renew their sexual relationship which started when his wife was ill but his rejection of her leads to the worse kind of revenge. Brendan Cowell allows John Proctor to be ordinary rather than a hero figure, his integrity shines only in contrast to the nasty Reverend Parris. Eileen Walshe as Elizabeth Proctor tries to do the best for her husband with disastrous consequences.
Rachelle Diedericks is the brave child Mary Warren, her nervousness apparent and this play shows up bullying from the other girls. I liked very much Tillly Tremayne as Rebecca Nurse, the stalwart figure in the community whose calming touch brings peace to the sick child Betty Parris (Jersey Blu Georgia the day I saw). Her being condemned makes no sense at all. Fisayo Akinade is sensible as the Reverend John Hale but powerless to stand up to Parris and Danforth. Karl Johnson is touching as Giles Corey unable to help his wife.
Matthew Marsh too is understandable as Deputy Governor Danforth, a politician who makes the most evil, political decision of all. When the wrongdoings become apparent, he decides to go ahead with more hangings because the alternative, the righteous course of action, would reveal past flawed decisions. Shameful!
This is a thorough and conventional interpretation of a masterful play and no less valued for not doing anything different or novel, but by letting the ensemble speak Miller’s well chosen words with clarity.
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Jersey Blu Georgia/Una Herrmann
/Evie Manner/Cadence Williams
Grace Cooper Milton
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Set Designer: Es Devlin
Costume Designer: Catherine Fay
Composer and Arranger: Caroline Shaw
Musical Director and Arranger: Osnat Schmool
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Sound Designer (Content): Tingying Dong
Sound Designer (System): Paul Arditti
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Running Time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Extended and Booking until 5th November 2022
London SE1 9PX
Tube/Rail : Waterloo
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Olivier Theatre at the matinée on 1st October 2022