Arthur Miller’s The Crucible uses the Salem witch trials of the 1690s as a parable for the McCarthy hearing of the period in which the play was written.
In the tight-knit, Puritan town of Salem, a group of girls are discovered dancing in the woods and then immediately fall ill. When no earthly cause can be identified, fear and suspicion begin to percolate in the small, isolated community, that something larger, more fearsome, and other worldly may be to blame. Buried secrets and resentments are brought to light, and attempts to root out evil lead to finger-pointing, treachery, and betrayal. When everyone is a suspect, sometimes the most dangerous threat to the community may be the community itself.
Ivo Van Hove’s production of The Crucible was a marvel. Set in a school room, with scribbles on the blackboard which had a life of their own at points, underlined the strict regime of Salem. Desks and chairs across the stage became reduced as the play unfolded, yet the stage slowly became littered with blocks of wood, feathers and dust.
Philip Glass’ musical score was an assortment of strings, gracefully crescendoing during moments of duress. Yet it also distracted from the actors, at points even drowning them out. During John and Abigail’s scenes, the music echoed that of a romance yet in John and Elizabeth’s scenes, it became a high pitched whine; this complete juxtapose from the relationships on stage did not work.
Symbolism was rife within the production. The beginning of Act III was introduced by a wolf prowling about the stage, echoing Elizabeth’s earlier line of ‘The town’s gone wild’. During Act II, John writes the ten commandments upon the blackboard; ‘Thou shall not kill’, ‘Thou shall not steal’, etc. In Act III, during the court scene, we see they have altered to ‘Thou shalt kill’, ‘Thou shalt steal’, etc.
There was a clear distinction of Johns relationships to Elizabeth, Abigail and Mary. The Crucible often focuses on John and Abigail’s relationship, yet it was John and Elizabeth’s that shone within this production.
With Sophie Okonedo’s Elizabeth, Ben Whishaw’s John was extremely soft and made clear decisions on whether to touch her or not. Throughout their opening exchange, they did not lay a hand on one another yet the words they spoke and their mannerisms spoke of a marriage lasting a lifetime. By the final scene, they sat front stage wrapped protectively around one another, laying soft kisses upon the others bodies. It was truly heartwarming and wrenching simultaneously.
Likewise with Tavi Gevinson’s Mary Warren, the actors friendship shined through their scenes. making the moment where John comforts Mary very gentle. You saw glimpses of John Proctor, the father, in moments such as after Mary confesses to the judge, she runs to John and they hug. Or when the girls are bullying her within the court room, she runs behind John, who protects her. Miller never shows you his children yet his relationship with Mary have glimpses of what he was like as a parent, causing the final scene to be more devastating as he gives up his wife and children to do what is right.
His relationship with Abigail, however, lacked passion. Her anger at him showed clearly; in particular the court scene. His ongoing temptation was also shown from the way his eyes would hover on her and he would not always immediately move away when she moves towards him. Yet after the scenes with Elizabeth, you found yourself wondering why he had given everything up for this one girl with whom he seeming had no emotional attachment to.
A clever moment of showing Abigail’s manipulative side was during Act III, in court when the girls are seemingly possessed and they each went to a man in the room and writhed, screaming whilst the men floundered. Yet, in the middle of all this confusion was John and Abigail full out fighting; slapping, grabbing, biting, snarling, John spitting insults at her. But when the other girls move away from the men, Abigail stops and acts like John is slapping her without cause, thus damaging his reputation within court more so. A superb moment of direction.
The cast as a whole did not have a tight knit community feel, which is predominantly what makes the play work. The Crucible, at the heart, explores how a closely knit community can easily turn upon one another for the sake of personal gain. The girls did not have a friendship group feel but instead a group who had simply been caught at the wrong place at the wrong time and were now stuck together. Likewise, the adults behaved as though they were neighbours who never spoke to one another, instead of always saying hello and knowing each others business.
Saoirse Ronan’s Abigail Williams is angry from her first appearance and maintains that emotion throughout. When her anger is not foremost, she was listless, preferring to stand calmly and quietly in a corner rather than wade into the conflict upon stage to defend her name and word. Her Abigail made no mark, with her delivery coming off as stilted at times.
Ciarán Hinds’ Thomas Danforth delivers a sinister tour de force as the chief witch-hunter. From the moment he stepped on stage he was icy and commanding, never losing his temper and oozing disappointment when somebody confessed to witchcraft or lying. He never comes off as a just judge in a terrible situation but a man of polish and cruelty. Tavi Gevinson is equally wonderful as Mary Warren, a young girl caught between wanting to do the right thing and wanting friends, her conflict clear and her choice a heartbreaking one.
But the core of the play, its heart and fibre, lies with John and Elizabeth Proctor. Both Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo hold nothing back, bringing a rich, deeply felt and shared intensity to their performances. Whereas John fights against society and falters in strength, Elizabeth submits to society and, in doing so, gains courage and inner strength. Her resolve is what makes John find his own morals again. You truly believe that he’d rather die than risk losing her respect.
Sophie Okonedo was the epitome of grace, nurture and goodness, her sense of her duty as a wife and a mother was profound. Elizabeth’s struggle was evident yet she remained positive throughout, especially in the final Act; the bedrock for John and his troubles. Her repetition of ‘It is not my place to judge you.’ are spoken with a frankness; no defensiveness or smugness in her tone, just the truth. The court scene in which Elizabeth is brought out to determine whether or not John is telling the truth, Sophie Okonedo is spellbinding. Faced with either betraying her husband or her morals, she battles with this openly yet also subtly so as to not show the judges and arouse their suspicions. She pauses often, as if to weigh each word and be sure she means what she says, making the pause after Danforth’s question ‘Is your husband a lecher?’ excruciating.
Ben Whishaw is masterful in the role of Proctor. At first, he has complete confidence in his own skin and it shows in his demeanour, arrogance rippling from him, his sarcastic replies to those around him; Proctor knows his standing within the community and is proud of it. As the play goes on, we can feel Proctor growing increasingly conflicted; his yearning to see his wife happy once more. He treats Elizabeth with the utmost care and attention. His arrogant dismissal of the court marshall which turns to disbelief and finally anger as he plants himself between the marshall and Elizabeth, roaring him down in an effort to protect his wife. By contrast, when facing Elizabeth, he is nothing but whispers and tenderness. This switch between such extreme emotions happened flawlessly, sometimes between the same sentence.
The court scene was an explosion for John, whilst attempting to remain calm. Throughout the exchange with the judges and Mary, his frustration and impatience is tangible yet he remains coolheaded. His Proctor doesn’t need physical size to be a presence, even when he grabs the girls and pins them to the floors or walls or frequently threatens to whip them, he does so with a snarling vengeance and the swiftness of his movements.
In the end, his snarkiness is what throws him into jail as he retorts that ‘God is dead!’ and goes on a half-mad, deeply sarcastic turn about Lucifer, before finally pleading ‘you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud.’
The final Act, shows a tortured and beaten Proctor, yet not broken. He struggles openly with whether to save his own life, live with his wife and children and live with he knowledge he abandoned his friends or to do what is morally right and die. Whishaw gives a no hold barred, electrifying turn here as he wrestles with his humanity whilst uttering, arguably Millers most famous line: ‘It is my name.’.
Director: Ivo Van Hove
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciarán Hinds, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Set Design: Jan Versweyveld
Music: Philip Glass
Photo: Jan Versweyveld