Friday, 12 December 2014

The Crucible (2014 Old Vic Theatre)

The Crucible takes place in Salem, Massachusetts in the year 1692. A young woman called Abigail Williams is discovered dancing in the woods late at night with several other young women and her Barbadian slave Tituba. Betty Parris, the daughter of the town reverend and Abigail's cousin, then has an apparent faint and doesn't stir again for several hours. Witchcraft is suspected and a man called Reverend Hale - an expert on defeating supernatural evil - is summoned from a nearby town in order to question the girls and solve the mystery. Abigail and the other girls then claim that they were bewitched and that they saw the Devil with several other women in the town. Soon the whole of Salem is thrown into hysteria as people in the community turn on each other. But what the audience soon comes to discover is that Abigail is infatuated with a married man called John Proctor with whom she once had an affair. Abigail is trying to get John's wife Elizabeth killed so that she and John will be able to marry. However, John is feeling immense guilt and self-loathing over his sin and now wants nothing more to do with Abigail. When Elizabeth is then accused of witchcraft, John desperately tries to save his wife from being hanged.

Up until last week I'd never seen a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible or even read the play. The Crucible isn't my first experience with Miller's work: I was forced to read and study Death of a Salesman for my A Levels and I found it a dead bore. I had no interest whatsoever in the characters and themes of that play. But when I heard that the Old Vic were doing a production of The Crucible I became curious, although I'll readily admit that I was only interested in it because it was starring Richard Armitage! :) I didn't get the chance to see the play live though and I groaned with envy when I read all of its rave reviews and prayed that it would be streamed in cinemas or put on DVD. In the end my prayer was answered! Digital Theatre filmed the play and it was shown in cinemas in the UK and Ireland this December. I believe that Digital Theatre will then be putting the play on their website this February. I saw The Crucible last Sunday and, well, I had a veery different experience with it than I did with Death of Salesman! The trailer for the production is below:

The Crucible was spectacular. The story of the play is extremely haunting. It was beautifully lit and it was full of tension and atmosphere. Yaël Farber's direction and the acting from the entire cast was magnificent. I can't imagine how the actors found the stamina to play those demanding roles night after night. I was somewhat apprehensive when I found out that this particular production was 3.5 hours long. That's longer than most Shakespeare plays. I think my attention span is pretty good but I wasn't terribly familiar with the play and I did wonder if it would be too long for me. Well, that wasn't remotely the case! I was emotionally invested in it the whole way through. I guess people with very short attention spans might be better off watching the play in stages when it eventually gets put onto the DT website but personally I had no problems with its length. By the time it had ended I certainly didn't feel like I'd been in the cinema for as long as I had. I didn't find the accents in the play at all distracting either. The actors in this production of The Crucible all speak in northern English accents instead of American accents. I thought that this could be quite jarring but actually it worked perfectly well. The people of Massachusetts would have been British citizens at the time after all. Technically the USA wouldn't even exist for another 80 years or so.

Richard Armitage is an RSC trained actor but John Proctor was his first stage role in 12 years. I've been a huge fan of Armitage ever since North and South. He's a brilliant actor and he deserves to be just as appreciated and famous as, say, Tom Hiddleston. Armitage gives a beautiful performance as John Proctor. He puts so much passion and energy and emotion and heart into the role and I really felt for his character. My favourite moments from RA were probably John's first scene with Abigail and his final scene of the play, which is incredibly moving and powerful. I really can't wait to see him play Thorin Oakenshield's descent into madness in the final Hobbit film now! Anna Madeley played the role of Elizabeth Proctor and she gives a very lovely and sympathetic performance. Some readers might know Madeley from her role as Lucy Steele in the 2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility adaptation. I thought Madeley was miscast in that miniseries but I liked her much, much more in The Crucible. The role of Abigail was played by Samantha Colley. Abigail Williams was not only Colley's first ever professional role; she was still at drama school at the time! If there's any justice Colley deserves to have a huge career after this production. She gives a chilling performance and I would never have guessed that it was her first professional role! Another performance that I especially loved in this play was Adrian Schiller as Reverend Hale. I thought I was going to hate Reverend Hale when he first appeared but it turns out that he's actually quite a complex character and by the end of the play I felt really sorry for him. Natalie Gavin was also brilliant as Mary Warren. I'm not going to name any other names but I must stress that every single cast member in this play were great. I don't think I've ever seen a play with such a brilliant ensemble!

To fully understand The Crucible I think it's important to know that the play was written in 1952 when the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was at the height of its power. Actors, screenwriters, playwrights, film directors and musicians could be denounced as communists and lose their careers and reputations if they displayed any "anti-American" sentiments. As a response to this Miller wrote The Crucible. He chose to link the hysteria and paranoia of the Salem Witch Trials with the Communist Witch Hunt that was going on at the time. The play is therefore highly significant as a piece of social commentary. Miller claimed that he'd always had a deep interest in the Salem Witch Trials but the play wasn't as historically accurate as he made out. It's true that many of the characters in the play are based on real-life people who lived in Salem at the time but I've read that Miller played around with ages and combined some characters together so that fewer actors would be needed. Usually I'm a bit of a stickler for historical accuracy in stories but I don't mind the changes that Miller made because - and this is probably not going to be very well-put but I'll try - I believe that the play has a higher truth. The Crucible shows us things that have gone on throughout history. It shows us what fear and ignorance can do to people. It shows us that people will use and manipulate the faith of others for their own ends. Sadly the play is just as relevant now as it was 60 years ago. I can see why some people maybe wouldn't like The Crucible. I can imagine that some people would find its themes too challenging or depressing. Well, sometimes we need stories that will challenge us and will make us think. The play reminds us that evil will thrive if good people are willing to do nothing, and that we have to stand up and become John Proctors. The play is also a reminder that if we forget our history that we're doomed to repeat our mistakes. People thought there would never be a genocide again after Nazi Germany but then there were genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. Personally I wouldn't say that the play is too depressing either. Okay so it's hardly a barrel of laughs but there are some funny lines from time to time. When I saw it at the cinema the audience did laugh at some points. The ending of the play is deeply tragic but at the same time Proctor's sacrifice is very heroic and inspiring.

I still don't think that I can call myself an Arthur Miller fan but I know that I loved The Crucible. I would definitely rank it as one of my favourite plays and I strongly recommend this production of it. It's a magnificent production and it deserves at least five Olivier Awards! If it doesn't win the awards for Best Revival, Best Director (Farber), Best Leading Actor (Armitage), Best Supporting Actress (Colley) and Best Supporting Actor (Schiller) I'm going to be dreadfully disappointed!

Rating: 5/5
Certificate Rating: 12


Hamlette said...

I've seen the Hollywood version, with Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis, and liked it fairly well, but not enough to see over and over. I can see Armitage really rocking that role, though!

Hannah said...

My previous comment had a big typing error so I deleted it.

I don't think I'd like that movie. I watched its trailer after I saw this and I didn't think much of it. I know it's not really fair to judge a movie on its trailer or at least not *entirely* fair but still... In the Old Vic production Richard Armitage's Proctor tells Abigail that he might think of her softly from time to time but that he'd rather cut off his hand than reach for her again. Richard Armitage delivers that line with distress and feeling. DDL's Proctor just looks mildly annoyed. And Samantha Colley's Abigail is really intimidating and intense in the OV production. I can understand why the other girls are afraid of her. Winona Ryder's Abigail looks like she wouldn't hurt a fly.

Oh, he really does! Also - and I guess it is unkind to tease you! - but he's wonderful in The Battle of the Five Armies. It came out on Friday over here but I'm not reviewing it just yet. I might watch it for a second time before I do.

Aibhilin (Evelyn) said...

This looks more amazing than the movie with Winona Ryder!!! coughmainlycauseofrichardarmitagecoughcough :P
Great review Hannah!

Manette said...

What, Death of a Salesman is Arthur Miller's? :O I had to read it at Uni too, and it was such a bore that I've completely forgotten everything that happened in it... and the author's name, apparently. Why is THAT PLAY so important that every poor soul has to read it?? I'll have to find out about The Crucible, though, it sounds interesting!

Hannah said...

Evelyn - Thank you!

*cough I feel kind of guilty for objectifying him but Richard Armitage is also totally gorgeous in the play like he always is and of course that's an added bonus reason to watch the play but then let's not forget that he's also a fantastic actor too cough cough* :D

Manette - I was forced to write an essay where I had to compare Death of a Salesman with Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale and you know my feelings on Chaucer! And the names in that play! Biff? Happy? Willy?! I know that might seem like a really silly reason to dislike something but those are reeeally stupid names! :D The Crucible is sooo much better than that play though. I actually felt for the characters, the themes were interesting, the stakes were high, the acting was magnificent, no-one had stupid names ... I could go on and on and on. I'd completely recommend this production :)

Hamlette said...

But they're stupid names on purpose. Arthur Miller was standing the classic theater tropes about tragedy on their heads with Death of a Salesman. Classically, tragedies were only supposed to be about royalty, or nobility if you wanted to push the envelope. The lives of ordinary, lowly, normal people weren't important enough for the sweeping grandeur of tragedy. Arthur Miller was trying to show that the death of a "nobody" could be just as tragic as the death of a king, that if America wanted to live by its "all men are created equal" creed, it needed to treat low men like Willy Loman (yeah, his last name is totally a play on words) as important too.

Compare Willy's sons with King Lear's daughters -- are they much different? Does Lear's death deserve to be made into a long play just because he was a king, while Willy's doesn't just because he was a simple salesman? Those are the sorts of questions Miller was posing.

I actually don't really like Death of a Salesman much, but I don't like King Lear much either, and for the same reason: I don't like the characters. So... um, just wanted to mention that he wasn't writing a pointless play there.

Hannah said...

Hamlette - Well I certainly feel sheepish! *awkward pause* Okay I didn't know that although I did catch the significance of the name "Loman". I think we mainly talked about the materialism in the play above anything else. I can't remember any discussions on how the play went against classical drama conventions. That is genuinely interesting.

Manette said...

I vaguely remember discussing Miller's point on the typical subject of tragedies during that Uni course and I appreciate him for breaking a rather unnecessary convention. It just bothers me to no end that I seriously can't remember a single thing about The Death of a Salesman, except the names Biff and Happy that Hannah pointed out. After all, writing a play about ordinary people's lives doesn't have to mean that the play comes across as dull, and sadly that was the only impression I got out of Salesman. To me, personally, it just seemed that none of the characters ever said anything meaningful. It's like the whole point was "look at how dull and unfulfilling our lives are", though I'm kind of tempted to give that play another read now... On the other hand, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County is, in my opinion, a prime example of an "ordinary people's story" that is the opposite of boring and leaves a huge impact. It's hands-down my favourite modern play. I assume you've seen the movie version, but for me, reading the original play afterwards was a huge lightbulb moment on how a play could and should work :)

Okay, back to The Crucible, because apparently I got over-excited and side-tracked on the subject of American plays... I just found out that they'll be showing this in Finnish movie theatres on March, and I am SO going to see it! It looks like I have to thank you again for tipping me off about interesting stuff :D By the way, I'll be reviewing NT Frankenstein as soon as I have my own laptop again! ;)

Aibhilin (Evelyn) said...


Hannah said...

Manette - I hope that you enjoyed the NT Frankenstein! You haven't written me a comment saying "Why did you tell me to see it? That play sucked!" so I'm getting hopeful that you did, hehe. And I'm so excited that you'll be seeing The Crucible! I really hope you'll like it! I loved the NT Frankenstein and after some reflection I think that the Old Vic;s The Crucible is even better!