In the town of Salem in the 17th century, something is afflicting the young girls after a night of dancing in the darkened woods.
As the minister, Parris (Nick Fletcher) fears the hand of the devil may be at his door, causing him a loss of status, sets in motion a chain of events that prove catastrophic to his Sabbath flock.
Abigail Williams (Milly Alcock) is the ringleader, her motive personal, but her methods are practical and malicious. She is variously called both saint and whore as the play progresses but proves neither.
Arthur Miller’s play is influenced by the MacCarthy hearings, of course, where testimony was used to accuse many of being Communist and therefore to be cast out of Hollywood as ‘red menaces’.
Even now, across the world, there are flawed depositions, twisted assumptions, and even ‘kangaroo courts’ (although rarely against former heads of state).
Salem’s witchhunt first falls on the poor, the drunk, the feeble-minded, but quickly heads on a roll to encompass everyone on the flimsiest of evidence.
Religion, sex and greed all collide in The Crucible as the accusers and those in judgement display their own agendas and prejudices. It may be that no one can be wholly good: not Rev Hale (Fisayo Akinade), not Elizabeth Proctor (Caitlin FitzGerald), not Rebecca Nurse (Tilly Tremayne).
The Crucible, a powerful play which in this production literally hides in the shadows and is framed by sheets of cascading rain, leaves a sense of devastating loss by its close, but I found this a version which has much to admire, but doesn’t quite havd the emotional heft of (for example) the 2014 Old Vic revival.
What is excellent is the lighting (Tim Lutkin), the music (Caroline Shaw), the power of Miller’s script, and the weight of the ideas behind it. What is good are the performances of Brian Gleeson (John Proctor), Karl Johnson (Giles), Matthew Marsh (the Judge), FitzGerald, Tremayne, and Nia Towle (Mary Warren).
The play asks us to look at what belief might mean and how a place dominated by religion may quickly turn hysterical and dangerous. Director Lyndsey Turner and set designer Es Devlin place us there with chairs, candles, and expanses of darkness.
Loyalty, jealousy, and a simple life dignifies a Salem where a new minister who demands a high salary and a house is viewed with suspicion.
Fragile alliances, carefully shaped, break under the strain of a court where the undeserving and unimportant suddenly take control.
And then there’s Abigail, essentially no more than a child, who has the heart of a love obsessed and a woman scorned. Whether she understands the havoc she has inflicted on her friends and neighbours is unclear, and she becomes as damaged as they are.
The play – which I have now seen in four productions on stage, and in four productions on screen – remains a must-see of peculiar relevance and brilliance.
It serves as both a satire on authority, and a warning to the power of persuasion – even more so now in our digital age where one casual, misplaced word could be misinterpreted.
The Crucible has transferred from the National Theatre to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End, where it runs until 2 Sep: details here.
Image credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg