Produced by Selladoor Productions (Jersey Boys, Footloose: the Musical, The History Boys) and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Arthur Miller’s famous and most frequently performed work, The Crucible, tours through Richmond this week. And what an important play it is – for so many reasons, not least in the current political climate in which we find ourselves. The author himself even said of his own play in an interview just two years before his death, “It’s something that probably and unfortunately is not going to be overwhelmed with irrelevance too soon.”
While parallels may indeed be drawn with society today (Miller did after all write The Crucible while America was prosecuting alleged Communists in the 1950s), the direct message of how religion has been used to control the masses down the ages – by the very highest levels of authority – can’t help but question the relevance of religion in today’s era of scientific discovery. Not surprisingly Miller, himself, was a staunch atheist. But back in the 17th Century, even the very notion of questioning such reasoning like: ‘un-Christian-like’ behaviour or mutterings must, by default, mean a person ‘walks hand-in-hand with the devil’ meant the difference between life and death.
Based around the Salem witch trials of 1692/3 – a very real piece of American history – the townsfolk are in a state of hysteria after a group of young girls have reportedly been seen playing and dancing in the woods one evening. When viciously questioned by the Reverend Samuel Parris, uncle and father to two of the girls, the youngsters' kneejerk reaction is to scream and fit, even adding claims of unexplicable visions. Parris, who requests a second ‘expert opinion’, summons the Reverend Hale whose presence, in turn, escalates the situation. Before you know it, thirty of Salem’s women and girls are on trial for witchcraft – with the prospect of being hanged if found guilty.
The fact that behind many of the accusations were hidden jealousies, tragedies, grudges and long-standing feuds will no doubt frustrate today’s society, but, in a time before the wonders of our world could be explained (and over 100 years before Darwin was even born), witchcraft was seen as the probable and justifiable cause by not only the clergy but the judicial system as well.
Under Douglas Rintoul’s faithful direction and Anouk Schiltz’s darkly sinister-yet-simplistic set design, this production takes a little while to find its feet, which is partly down to Miller’s set-up but, when it does, the lengthy production really grips you. On press night you could have heard a pin drop throughout the auditorium; always a good sign.
The Crucible is very much an ensemble piece and, as such, plaudits must be shared. However, Cornelius Clarke and Coronation Street’s Charlie Condou deserve mention with strong accounts of Reverends Parris and Hale respectively, as does Eoin Slattery and Victoria Yeates as John and Elizabeth Proctor – the couple pulled into the centre of the whole debacle. Lastly, Jonathan Tafler also makes the most of Judge Danforth’s farcical investigations – well, they would be farcical if they weren’t based on true events. Thank goodness we live in the 21st Century! ...despite there being some alive today who still believe in putting people to death for refusing to believe in their ideology.