Then how did he die?
They press him John.
Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead ay or nay. They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died.
I could actually quote that entire scene (I looked it up only to check I’d gotten the wording right) verbatim, without checking. I have, if memory serves played both Proctors at some point, and I have clearly had the play etched into my brain via GCSE drama and other delightful studies. Add to that a specialism in Cold War History (more on that shortly) and 20th Century drama, it’s possible to get a little Crucible-ed out. However in all that I’ve never actually seen the damn thing performed live. So with the Old Vic doing a production, while I was in London, and with Richard Armitage in the role of Proctor, I decided to finally see it.
Despite knowing the play so well, I found this production to be engaging and almost thriller like in it’s pacing. I had been concerned given reports of its length, but it felt well paced and never seemed to drag or as long as it actually was. Yes the lengthy scene changes which were carefully choreographed moving of the minimal set on an off stage, did add time to the already substantial length. However they added atmosphere and allowed for transitions between scenes that actually at times added to the story.
The staging itself worked really well. Staged in the Old Vic’s new ‘in the round’ set up, it helped bring the action in closer to the audience and added a sense of claustrophobia that fits with the premise of the play. Much like ‘Other Desert Cities’ before it, the intimacy between actors, set and audience helps to draw into the play, making it more intimate than I’d ever imagined it as.
I have a difficult time with The Crucible as a play generally. Having studied it to death for a start, makes it difficult to disconnect and get lost in the performance. But the performances, the staging and the atmosphere created here was enough to draw me in and keep me locked in the story for much of the time. I do find it difficult to completely lose myself in the story though, my historians brain gets in the way, and the metaphor gets a little lost on me. My brain always resets to the contemporary setting that Miller was writing about with The Crucible (the ‘witch hunt’ of his era, the Army-McCarthy hearings) and as any historian will tell you there’s such a thing as knowing too much when it comes to fiction. In the case of this play I know too much about the fictionalised Salem version and the present day that Miller was writing to. So for me it’s a true testament to this play that I did find myself lost in the story and at times even though I knew all to well what was next, waiting in anticipation for it. The other aspect is just how terrifying the group of young girls is. I don’t mean in their witchy personas but actually the deeper point about mass hysteria or mob mentality that Miller was making. Anyone who has had any association with teenage girls knows en masse they are a scary lot, but I found myself making allusions to Mamet’s Oleanna in which people in authority are brought down by in that case a young woman, but in the case of the Crucible, a group of women. I’m sure there’s a more detailed analysis there, and I may be off track entirely but it’s a thought that occurred. What also occurred to me which my 1990s education certainly didn’t touch on was the inherent sexism of the play, all women are mad, the idea of women as a righteous man like John Proctor’s downfall. However, Miller is not exactly known for being devoid of sexist content. And that is a lengthy essay for another day. As it is I can accept The Crucible more than his other plays in terms of sexism as he was drawing on the historical tales of Salem. And well, if I wasn’t able to turn off my sexism radar and enjoy a play for what it is now and then I’d have major issues going to the theatre. And this production also doesn’t overplay or make worse the inherent negative images of women, if anything they became more rounded, more real women. They are still a terrifying force, and a problematic one in some respects, but I also understood them more as individuals, even when acting a scary ‘coven’.
For many of these reasons, overall ‘The Crucible’ doesn’t make me emotional in the way ‘Streetcar’ did the night before. In some ways its the way I engage with the playwrights, for me Williams speaks poetically and to the heart, particularly in Streetcar. Miller on the other hand speaks to my head, which I can’t turn off. That isn’t to say I wasn’t moved, when finally in the scene I quoted at the start, Protor and his Elizabeth are together. In fact the two scenes they share alone across the play were both incredibly moving. And both Armitage and Anna Madely give stand out performances.
And though it’s being sold as Armitage’s play (well if you can put him on a poster why wouldn’t you?) and though Proctor is a character who binds the piece it’s real strength is its ensemble piece. And the ensemble for this production is incredibly strong. From the group of girls who at time scarily move and seem to think as one, to the supporting group of male village elders-particularly Adrian Schiller and Michael Thomas as reverends Hale and Parris respectively, are all standout performances of their own. Armitage is excellent as Proctor, his booming voice and physical stature dominate the early scenes making it all the more affecting when, in the final scene he is broken down, his voice and stature reflecting this. There is no doubt in his abilities and he brings the ensemble together effectively but there is no doubt this production is a team effort.
Despite my doubts, and my inability to turn off my brain usually, I felt myself sucked in and taken on a thrilling engaging ride by The Crucible. Armitage is a stand out performer and it is impossible to take your eyes off him (well ok it is, but why would you want to?) within a strong, well directed piece of classic theatre. More than enough to blow off the cobwebs of GCSE drama.