As you enter the Olivier Theatre you are welcomed with designer Es Devlin’s foreboding curtain of luminous rain. The play begins with haunting choral works composed by Caroline Shaw creating a tense atmosphere but also reflecting the church-driven nature of the puritan society.
Arthur Miller’s Salem tragedy relating to the McCarthy era tells the story of a corrupt village that becomes embroiled in a witch hunt where no one is safe after a group of young girls forced by peer pressure start pointing fingers at their elders. It contains themes of morality, good and evil, social status, chaos, intolerance and the power of lies.
The Crucible has been done repeatedly in many different styles and has been crucial as part of GCSE syllabus, filling theatres with an educated audience of students and long running fans of the play.
The writing itself is a masterpiece, diving into deep and thought-provoking themes filled with morals that are relevant to society of all era’s, even modern day.
This production, though at times beautifully staged with some captivating moments, lacks a sense of danger throughout which the play is meant to be driven by. Lyndsey Turner seems to miss the opportunity of diving into deeper more visceral themes in this production, and presents its arguments in a considered way which though interesting reduces the stakes.
Rachelle Diedericks stood out playing the weak and gossiping servant Mary Warren, a conflicted character manipulated by those around her. A scene that stood out for me was when she dares to speak out against the group of girls but slowly gives in to Abigail’s bullying tactics when the girls cry out, making Mary the villain as she becomes desperate to fit in with the group.
Karl Johnson is also a highlight as Giles Corey and adds a lightness to the production. Although seen only briefly, Sophia Brown as Tituba gives an outstanding performance when confessing at the start (after being the first to blame because of her status) through her devotion to god.
Brendan Cowell gives a somewhat convincing performance as John Proctor although it is more Eddie Carbone in View from the Bridge than Salem 1692. Erin Doherty gives a noble effort as fierce and energetic Abigail but at some points, her character is strangely flat and lacking a sense of franticness as she is described by Arthur Miller.
I find it hard to believe that Proctor had ever had any temptation with Abigail as there is no chemistry between them. The ensemble start by narrating the show and add a sense of community and strength in numbers in court.
Devlin’s sets were aesthetically magnificent, minimalist but effective in creating just four different traditional settings. The sheet of rain reflects the atmosphere of the play and mesmerises the audience . Occasionally the background lights up to reveal powerful tableaux, reminiscent of the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby.
Tim Lutkins lighting was hugely powerful and adds to the stirring atmosphere. Catherine Fay’s costume design is unusual as it seems to range from 17th-20th century wear with the girls in old-fashioned floral pink dresses to represent innocence yet the men wear dark blue workwear – however the different periods could suggest how the issues in the play are relevant to all times.
The problem lies in the actors’ reactions as the relaxed response decreases the tension. When John Proctor (Brendan Cowell) dares to question the system, he has no fear and speaks very casually to the court and the spectators do not seem at all shocked by this.
Some moments seem to drag as there is no build-up of fear and the tension ebbs and flows. The accents were inconsistent, uneven, and some lines were twisted to get a quick laugh from the audience which was unnerving and lessened the terror.
This was also down to the staging as some scenes were rather static and the actors began to speak monosyllabicly.
The accusations in the first scene were the most captivating part of the production as the horrified looks on the actors’ faces when hearing renowned members of the society being accused of witchcraft, and not knowing who will be next – at this point, I was on the edge of my seat!
The Crucible at the National Theatre has some engrossing moments but the danger needed to drive the play is absent therefore the pace is rather sluggish. However the element that stays in my mind after seeing this production are the enchanting sets which are the starring feature of this production.
Written by Arthur Miller
Presented by National Theatre
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
The Olivier Theatre , National Theatre 14th September- 5th November
If you can’t make it to the National Theatre, a National Theatre Live broadcast of “The Crucible” will be released in cinemas in the UK/Ireland from 26 January and internationally from 2 March 2023.