13 July 2014

Theatre Delights: Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' shines with amazing ensemble and timely story

This 4th of July I saw no fireworks or didn't eat at any BBQs.  In fact, since living in London I haven't had a typical Fourth, but this is one I will certainly never forget.  By some degrees of separation I could argue that the play, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, was a fine play for the day.  It is written by one of the most revered American playwrights, took place in one of the original 13 colonies, and was the means to comment on one of the most unpleasant bits of US history--the McCarthy era.

The Crucible advertising
I know Miller's name and his other celebrated play, Death of a Salesman, but was not familiar with The Crucible save for its name and that it was set during the Salem witch trails of 1692. Therefore, as I entered The Old Vic Theatre's Round Stage I had no idea what to expect.  I just knew I was seeing a celebrated piece of theatre with an actor I had enjoyed from film and television.  What I received was a spellbinding, riveting performance from an ensemble cast who had given their all to tell this story with intensity, a sense of importance, and sincerity. The staging and setting was simple.  The simpler the better, I believe.  A period-piece to the core, director Yeal Farber set her scene properly in Salem, Massachusetts of 1692, where the church and religion prevailed and one idea planted by the proper person was taken as word; no one questioned their leaders, political or religious.  Miller was using the scene to comment on 1950's America; however, Farber and her cast showed us that it is a relevant story whether it is told in the 17th, 20th, or 21st centuries.  And she has wisely left it to the viewer to decide what the message is for them.

Through the magnificent ensemble a few players did shine bright.  Richard Armitage, who played the main protagonist John Proctor, was certainly one of them.  Armitage is well-known in Britain for the work he has done on television and internationally in film.  As someone who had known his work from these, I was excited at the prospect and opportunity to see his work on stage; he did not disappoint.  From the moment Armitage walked on stage it seemed as though he literally carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; we later learn of the infidelity that does weigh him down.  His Proctor is full of regret and continually seeks forgiveness from his wife while pushing away further temptation from the young Abigail Williams (played with plotting perfection by Samantha Colley), whom his wife sent away due to her suspicions.  After becoming so familiar with an actor's work, I sometimes feel as if one character or performance leek into another. I asked myself, would Thorin Oakenshield or John Thornton seep through into John Proctor?  The answer is a resounding no.  Armitage's Proctor is spell-binding making this audience member (jury member we may argue given the way the Old Vic's Round theatre was organised) certain that despite his failings and mistake he was a good man.

Proctor's wife Elizabeth, played with force and grace by Anna Madeley, is both a woman of her time and ours.   Making her first appearance quite far into the play, she emboldens Elizabeth with strength and purpose within her first few lines.  Her relationship with her husband has clearly cooled due to her suspicions and actions, but she continues with her duties and expectations as a farmer's wife: preparing dinner, rearing the children, and keeping the home.  The Crucible was filled with emotionally charged performances during the accusations and trials, but I would argue that Armitage and Madeley's powerful scenes together told the simple story of a husband and wife trying to work through a crisis and finally finding their way back to each other.  Simplicity.

With an amazing adaptation, a powerful ensemble cast, such as the thundering witch-hunting Judge Danforth, a powerful and frightful performance by actor Jack Ellis in addition to the minister-with-a-conscience Rev. John Hale, throughly brought to life by Adrian Schiller, it is no wonder that it has impressed all that have have been fortunate enough to view it.  On a stage made you feel as if you were part of a jury, it left this juror realising how easy it is for one idea or claim to lead a group of people, a commuity, even a population to be steered in a particular direction, even if it is false.