THE CRUCIBLE at the Gielgud Theatre
“A parable that certainly stands the test of time, its shadows crossing the centuries and still looming large today”
If you (falsely) confess to the charges levelled at you – your life is spared. If you (truthfully) deny them, even though the evidence is based on little more than mass hysteria, you will be hanged. A warped message, but one that resonates today, albeit in an exaggerated way. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is based on the Salem witch trials of the 1690s but he openly presented it as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the US government persecuted people accused of being communists. Lyndsey Turner’s atmospheric revival stays faithful to Miller’s seventy-year-old classic, while allowing the audience to draw their own parallels with our contemporary world of cancel culture, social media groupthink and perceptions of reality. It sounds heady stuff, but the beauty of Turner’s interpretation is that these worries are triggered by straightforward, authentic and, at times, chilling drama.
There is no safety curtain in this production. Instead, a wall of rain pre-sets the action that unfolds on Es Devlin’s simple and sepulchral set. Tim Lutkin’s lighting casts whispers of horror while Tingying Dong’s soundscape illuminates the menace with the aural equivalent of dying candles. The young girls, innocent in appearance, writhe in unison, led by ringleader Abigail (a compelling Milly Alcock). It matters not whether their possession by the devil is real or not. The fatal effects on their elders – the supposedly authoritative members of society – are what propels the narrative. The outcome is guided by superstitions, and by unenlightened minds that eschew truth and reason in favour of their self-interested goals. The familiarity is sometimes uncomfortable as the focus regularly shifts from the accused to the accusers. The term ‘witch-hunt’ has become such a cliché, but Turner’s rich interpretation refreshes it without uprooting it from its origins.
The heart of the story, and it’s strongest moments of pathos, stem from joint protagonists John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth. Despite John’s dubious backstory and the marital discord, it is the redemptive qualities of their relationship that restores our faith and offers a fragile hope. Brian Gleeson has the charisma to marry Proctor’s rebellious defiance with a gentle dignity, ultimately admitting guilt to protect his wife and children. Caitlin Fitzgerald’s Elizabeth has a matching dignity, made stronger by the knocks it needs to withstand. Their scene together towards the climax of the show is a quiet moment of heartbreak that stands out above the wolflike baying.
Milly Alcock’s manipulative Abigail swings from endearing to malicious in a captivating performance, matched by Nia Towle’s Mary Warren, a fellow accuser who, too late, shows flashes of conscience. The voices of reason are mercifully heard above the clamour. Such as Tilly Tremayne’s Rebecca Nurse and Karl Johnson’s tragicomic portrayal of Giles Corey who exposes alternative motives for the trials. Accusations fly as irrationality poses as righteousness. Fisayo Akinade’s Reverend John Hale both embodies and exposes this in a remarkable performance that pins down disillusionment in the face of corruption and abuse.
At just under three hours the pace never seems slow. Miller’s language – its rhythms and patterns – can take the credit, but it has to share it with a tremendous company that honours the writer’s intentions. A parable that certainly stands the test of time, its shadows crossing the centuries and still looming large today. This revival is as dark as those shadows but is a shining example of how theatre can light up our lives.
Reviewed on 16th June 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Previously reviewed at this venue: