The Crucible, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, Saturday 25th October 2015
To Manchester with some friends for The Crucible at the Royal Exchange.
Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about a colonial American town that is seized by murderous hysteria following an allegation of witchcraft is one of the best known and pop-culture referenced modern plays. I feel like I know it well, even though this was my first live performance and I hadn’t read the text in over twenty years, as I read around Miller while studying Death of a Salesman for GCSE.
So it was a privilege to see such a fine piece of writing translated into a fast-paced, energetic and punchy production. What I had forgotten, or perhaps never quite appreciated, back when I was 16, was how darkly funny the play is, at least during the first two thirds.
At various points, Miller lets his characters work through the logical insanity of their position. The purpose of a witchcraft trial, one court functionary patiently explains, is to demonstrate the existence of things for which there is no evidence. While denying being a witch is, of course, proves that you are a witch.
Performing the play in the round added two additionally powerful elements. As the accusations and counter-accusations fly, as the atmosphere darkens, as the pitch becomes more shrill, the characters circle each other in a boiling cauldron of hatred and suspicion. Round and round they dance and jig, pointing fingers, seeing omens, fighting off diabolic possession.
What makes the tone even murkier is the realisation that, for some of the characters, this episode of hot madness is an opportunity to deliver cold vengeance and settle old scores, from claims of land ownership – “This man is killing his neighbours for their land!” Giles warns the townsfolk – to allegations of marital infidelity.
As well as adding to the swirling madness, performing the play in the round worked well in the many arrest, interrogation, and courtroom scenes. As an audience member, I felt unwillingly complicit as the prosecution figures questioned the accused ‘in front of this jury’ and ‘in the eyes of the townspeople gathered here’. With these words and accompanying ‘gather in, crowd’ gestures, we were made to feel part of the mob surrounding around the victims.
In addition to the strange water motif toward the end, the one off-note of the play was the use of anachronistic props and costumes. Why did the ‘officers’ of the colonial proto-police force have modern evidence bags and semi-automatic weapons, when the townsfolk are ploughing fields with horses and planting seeds by hand? Why did some characters wear modern clothes while others were dressed as 17th century farm hands?
This review of the play suggests the use of modern props was an attempt to situate The Crucible, and its liberal rejection of mob justice and state interference, in today’s world of online hate mobs and mass state surveillance. I agree that idea of John Proctor as Edward Snowdon is a bit of a stretch, and if that was the intention of this production, it didn’t work. Neither I nor my companions made any such connection as we debated the play afterward.
It was interesting nonetheless that the reviewer made such a connection because, in Billington’s words, “great plays change their meaning depending on time and circumstance”. In the introduction to the book, he cites this as the prime criterion for inclusion in the list: “the very best plays are rooted in their historical moment and yet have a sustainable afterlife…a great play is both an expression of its time and open to multiple reinterpretation”.
This production of The Crucible didn’t attain that height of striking contemporary relevance, if indeed it was trying to do so. Rather, it underlined the humanistic message at the heart of the play that can apply to all ages.