The Crucible
 

 

abigail

Led by the increasingly rabble raiser Abigail Williams (Corina Mann) the girls pretend a seizure to convince the court, including severe Judge Danforth (Sue Whyte), just visible behind the heads. Pictures: Graeme Braidwood

The Crucible

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

****

Dark, gloomy, blackened upright stakes formed a suggestive and sinister backdrop to the underground space where Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was being enacted by Northampton’s The Actors Company, the Royal and Derngate’s Community Actors’ Group.

At the end of this fence, an upturned L-shaped upright that looked ominously like a gibbet. What more appropriate symbolism for a play that alludes to at least 400 (in fact many more) in jails across America incarcerated for presumed witchcraft, ’78 of them due to hang’?

The Crucible centres, of course, on just one small borough of the eastern United States: Salem, an unexceptional town although an early settlers’ foundation: little more than a big village, jutting out on the shore of Massachusetts some 25 miles north of Boston.

The events concerned – the horrific events – involved allegations, mostly wholly manufactured, by a clutch of girls in the township against a number of adult members, male and female. It culminates, a bit like Shaw’s St. Joan, in a largely staged trial grimly led by a fierce investigating judge-cum-prosecutor determined to bring in guilty verdicts. The dates are 1692 and 1693; somewhat late, for witch trials in Europe – Sweden, Germany, England, had largely subsided by then.

Miller’s play was staged in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy impugnment, or accusations, of Communist tendencies in many innocent Americans, including literary figures and actors. As an allegory for current events, this play could scarcely be more powerful.

For an amateur company The Crucible is quite a big nut to crack. Yet it is also somehow appropriate too, with its large cast and the forthright way Miller sets out the story. I was not prepared, however, for the passion, vigour, daring and intensity that this admirable company brought to bear. This was, in fact, a very good production indeed.

It’s to Fay Lomas, the Director, that the first accolades must go. This company scarcely felt amateur at all, so excellently had she motivated them, injecting clever moves in a small acting space, so there was endless variety; their speaking seemed scrupulously well rehearsed; the changes in dynamic were notable. There was ample rise and fall: when shyness or fear necessitated restraint, they dropped their voices convincingly. Armed with (potentially) five entrances, with the help of a few seats/benches dotted around, the domestic scenes became realistic; the court scene was as fearsome and domineering as was needed. There was little that was wrong or weak or didn’t work in this staging. Frankly, it was exemplary throughout.

Lomas has run up some handsome credits (Sheffield Crucible – aptly; Southwark Playhouse; Finborough Theatre). She directed The Winter’s Tale in the incredibly atmospheric, 900 year old Norman St. Peter’s Church; and, again in Northampton, was behind The Actor Company’s adapted Great Expectations last year. She’s clearly in demand. She certainly should be.

proctor and wife

John Proctor (David Eadie) and his wife Elizabeth (Helen Gibb) - two of the finest performances in this excellent Derngate staging

 

The play relies on three or four crucial characters: John Proctor, the ultimate innocent victim of this savage purge; Abigail Williams, who sets the whole ghastly witch hunt in progress; Mary Warren, who nearly scuppers the horrifying prosecution but is overborne into supporting the lie; and Judge (Thomas) Danforth, the near equivalent of England’s dreadful Judge Jeffreys, who descends to preside over the staged trial and cows even his fellow judges.

Of these leads, nothing but good can be said. The exact relations between the characters are tricky to divine, even in Miller’s text. The cuts, perhaps necessary or desirable here, may have reduced the impact of certain characters, but any simplification of the narrative was almost certainly beneficial.

The other criticism, made by a friend of mine, was that a woman (Sue Whyte) was cast as the bullying Danforth. ‘A woman’, he said, ‘would have seen through the girls’ made-up allegations’. Interesting, perhaps. But the point here was that Sue Whyte was, with admirable neutrality, playing a man; and incredibly well too. Her Danforth was bitter, forceful, insistent, ironic, strong, merciless perhaps, and ultimately blind; but (s)he was not vitriolic, brutal, inhuman, ruthless or sinister. Just terrifyingly direct.

One of the great skills, for me, of this interpretation (and just to see her/his rocklike stance gave you the shivers) was that Lomas and Whyte made Danforth, 32 years at the bar, more reasonable than I have seen before. This was a pursuit of law, not a venomous personal vendetta. Only at the end does Danforth turn to stretching the law; atrociously attacking Mary Warren, and at that point only does one jettison respect; he becomes an ogre. It was not just an assured, but highly intelligent approach. Perhaps too often Danforth is himself made the Devil incarnate.

John Proctor is, as it were, the soul of this play, and like many a soul, he is flawed. He has had, perhaps not an affair, but a dalliance with Abigail: he had her ‘where my beasts are bedded’. It, i.e. her vengeance, probably costs him his life. David Eadie was a splendid piece of casting. The scene where he discusses with his wife, Elizabeth (the superb Helen Gibb) his erring – ‘lechery’ - was a beautifully managed piece of dialogue – one of the most searing a married couple can have. Her arrest initiates his pertinent ‘Is the accuser always holy now?’ and later, ‘I will fall like an ocean on that court’. A man drawn to ‘planting, crops, cows, a stallion, a white mare’, who knows wrong, and evil, and injustice when he sees it, and is not afraid to speak out.

In the Trial, where Elizabeth Proctor is victim of some of the most acute questioning, the way she, gradually crumbling, is prevented from looking at him was one of the most poignant sequences of all. Eadie showed to perfection a farming type, essentially straightforward, a man who could be relied on; in whom, despite his misdemeanour (though Abi is presumably underage) can be trusted. A man with a deep sensitivity, and profound honesty.

Before the girls, two other men, both clerics. Steve While plays Rev. Parris, whose daughter’s illness sets in train (not without a whisker of reason) the notion that foul play is at work. Paul Thornhill plays Rev. Hale, summoned in to weigh things up and lend support. His negative attitude fires up the temperature, lending weight (unduly) to the accusations.

Both were well played, and both proved kind of turncoats. As Whyte’s unremitting Danforth ratchets up the danger, Parris, in particular, seems to repent of the mess he has caused. So, clerics don’t emerge from this too well. Nor, certainly, does Thomas Putnam, aptly conveyed by Adam Kozuch at the outset as a bit of a shit; although his wife has lost seven children, so perhaps they might forgivably wonder why.

pitnam

Thomas Putnam (Adam Kozuch) and Rev. Parris (Steve While) interrogate the elderly Tituba (Meryl Couper), believed the source of all the witchcraft.

 Nor should one omit Ezekiel Cheever (Mark Farey) and Giles Corey (Will Adams). Both Farey and Adams, the one an ‘officer of the law’, the other an older townsmen, added valuable additions to the dialogue, indeed Corey has one of the most impressive outbursts of all (‘It is a hearing. You cannot convict me for contempt of a hearing.’), against the sheer ineptitude and presumption of events as they are unfolding; while Farey’s (Ezekiel Cheever) edgy, especially lucid voice made a marked contribution – he speaks beautifully. Giles Corey has seen life, he has his finger on the pulse. He does not swallow Danforth’s ‘There is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country’, let alone his (to Proctor) ‘What are you? You are combined with Anti-Christ, are you not?’ Giles is a very real creation by Miller, and indeed here by Will Adams.

On to the threatening, spiky fence chalked names begin to appear. Names naming names. Intensifying atmosphere, threat, malice. These girls are not above dabbling with silly wicked wishes; or dancing in the woods, probably with their knickers off. But they are girls. Despite the way they are gradually drawn into this make-believe, and in due course reinforce it, at the likely expense of their lives, they are surely essentially normal. Good girls going a bit further than a jape. Naughty girls, of good parents, ready to experiment with sex. Ready to flash their eyes. Momentarily, ready for anything.

Corina Mann’s Abigail was a strong character, ready to fight her corner, mature a bit before her years. A typical, dominating, flamboyant redhead. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’, she would be an Amazon. The moment when all the girls suddenly pretend, together, as one, to see visions in court was scintillating, and not a little scary. They huddle together, led by Mann’s Abigail, and so simply but meaningfully blocked as if to shut out all others and retreat into, cling to, their misguided girly world; a world where little people stick pins in puppets. It’s also the moment when Mary gives up her attempt at maintaining a different line.

Jo Watts’s Mary, a bit cowardly, easily taken apart, the chastened type, was fabulous in and out of court. Hers and Abigail’s contrasting facial reactions were a picture. You could just possibly imagine Mary two years younger than the others, and her emotions and reactions as such, underdeveloped. She tries to hold her own, but in the end gives in easily. ‘A witch won’t testify against herself; so we must rely on the victims,’ puts in Danforth ominously; but the victims of invented witchcraft rapidly become scapegoats of the law. Mary signs off because she wants to be one of the girls. It is the elderly Rebecca Nurse (Salli Belsham), gratuitously accused of the murder of children, who holds out against the moral battering; and how we cheer for her.  

All of the scarlet-robed judges backed up Danforth competently. Hathorne (Stewart Magrath) is a pretty ineffectual type, but was well presented, and well spoken. Ryan Chambers, notably well moved, made a very apt deputy for Danforth: clearly learning the trade, and a pretty nasty interrogator too. Mo Shapiro (also scarlet) was the notary type, nicely pert and knowing, and not very forgiving. On the subject of colours, Jonathan Blunsdon’s Lighting – whites, ambers, blues, biting reds – deserves a special mention.    

But it is Eadie’s John Proctor who utterly dominates the end. His scene with his wife at the trial is utterly affecting and moving. It is a proclamation, amid all the slips and failings, the fallings from grace, the reconciliations, of married life: something that resists, indissolubly clasped together, the erroneous malpractices of inscrutable authority. ‘You know in all your black hearts that this is fraud’, Proctor challenges, outraged. ‘Do you know that God damns all liars?’ In short, God, if he exists, is not on the side of the persecutors. Senator Joe McCarthy, in due course discredited himself, would have done well to take notice.

Roderic Dunnett

07-18 

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