Thursday, 15 October 2015

'The Crucible' at Bristol Old Vic

Cast photo by Geraint Lewis
Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play The Crucible made its British debut at Bristol Old Vic in 1954, so it is only fitting that it returns to this famous stage to mark 100 years since Miller’s birth (and 10 years since his death).

This is my second viewing of The Crucible, having previously seen a very dry production at the Nottingham Theatre Royal in the late 1990s. I’d be lying if I said I had enjoyed that one back then. But the opportunity to see this production directed by Tom Morris - the theatre’s executive director - was too good to pass by.

Morris wisely chose to present a ‘straight’ production of The Crucible, with none of the puppets or other distractions some of his other shows have become known for. When the script and cast are as tightly knit as they are for this performance of The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic, there is really no need for anything extra.

Centred around the moral backbones of John (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Elizabeth Proctor (Neve McIntosh), the entire and expansive cast is faultless. Particular praise must go to Rona Morison whose performance as teenage troublemaker Abigail Williams is outstanding - and whose narrative threads the whole show together into a disaster of literally biblical proportions for the town and the Proctors.

We open on Rev Parris (Jude Akuwudike) and his niece Abigail fretting about Parris’ daughter Betty (Zoe Castle) who has apparently been struck dumb and motionless after a night of revelry in the woods with Abigail and some of the town’s other young girls. Rumours quickly spread that the girls were engaged in witchcraft and this escalates to suggestions the girls were conjuring the spirits of dead babies, drinking blood, dancing naked and flying through the air like spectres. The town is divided between those who are quick to gleefully believe such scandal and those who think the girls are just playing for attention. But Abigail’s devious past leads her to guide the girls into truly terrible behaviour… while the illogical actions of the religious zealots and Governor Danforth (Jeffrey Kissoon) is spine-chillingly horrific.

Famously inspired by the metaphorical Communist witch hunts that informed Miller’s experience of life in America in the early 1950s, he uses the actual Salem witch trials of 1692 as an allegory for the horror of publicly - and falsely - accusing innocent people of all manner of evils with not a care for evidence, proof or reason. As has been noted by many, the message of The Crucible can be applied to any era you care to mention and this is doubtless part of the play’s resounding power.

For a contemporary spin, just consider the current trend for social media shaming. Where interfering people illicitly take photos of strangers doing perceived wrong acts, and post them online for others to share, name, shame and compulsively vilify. At times this has even resulted in people losing jobs and relationships with no course of action to defend themselves… and even if they did, nobody would listen because it is much more ‘fun’ to believe the salacious rumours than to listen to facts and reason.

The haunting refrain of “There’s a beautiful home of the soul … ‘Tis a land where we’ll never grow old” through this production of The Crucible is heartbreaking in its truth and simplicity. There’s a reason why Miller’s play has survived for so long and with its timeless message it will surely survive for generations to come.

The Crucible is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 7 November. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

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