“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.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD at the Battersea Arts Centre
“all three performers worked harder than they should have to with Little Red Robin Hood”
The Sleeping Trees return to the Battersea Arts Centre with yet another mashed up pantomime, and this year it is the turn of Robin Hood and Little Red Riding Hood. Little Red Robin Hood has a lively script. That’s as you would expect from writers as talented as James Dunnell-Smith, John Woodburn and Joshua George Smith (with an able assist from Musical Director and Sound Designer Ben Hales). But, and it pains me to say this, the overall production is a disappointment.
Let’s start with the premise that kicks off the show. It might seem cute to hand the show over to a couple of earnest ushers, when the cast inexplicably—o.k not so inexplicably at this moment in history—get caught in a Tube strike, and special guest star Cher’s helicopter gets improbably stuck in mid air. And it’s no fault of performers Simone Cornelius, Miya James and Sam Rix that they get handed a script to improvise around, that was obviously written for the usual cast of Dunnell-Smith, Woodburn and Smith. Add to that some hastily made props, and some sketchy costumes, and the overall effect of Little Red Robin Hood is not of a plucky trio going on to save the show, but of three performers out of their depth, despite their best efforts.
The plot of Little Red Robin Hood is a nicely updated version of Little Red Riding Hood (aka Little Red) who wants to meet her hero, Robin Hood. Little Red has a couple of problems—one is that she is not a very good shot with the bow and arrow, and the second is that nobody knows what has happened to Robin Hood. The evil Sheriff of Nottingham and the Big Bad Wolf have joined forces which is very bad news for the citizens of both Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, since the Sheriff wants to make them all homeless by pulling down their houses, and putting up a big car park. The Sheriff is seemingly untroubled by things like planning permission, and apparently has the power to throw anyone he doesn’t like in jail—again, not totally implausible in this day and age. Things look bad for brave Little Red and her mum. And that’s to say nothing of Red’s Grandma, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Cher—if Cher lived in Sherwood Forest, which is almost completely unlike Los Angeles, where the real Cher lives. Anyway. There are some brilliant plot twists, involving long lost lovers reunited, a long lost Robin Hood found, and a pantomime unicorn. All ends happily as Little Red switches her red cloak for one of woodland green.
Part of the problem with Little Red Robin Hood is that The Sleeping Trees are victims of their own success. At their best, they are unbeatable at the pantomime mashup, and it’s noticeable when they fail to reach such high standards. Little Red Robin Hood, as a children’s show, is actually a good piece of educational theatre, since it is all about teaching kids how to be an audience at a pantomime. The performers, particularly Sam Rix, do an excellent job of teaching the children how to boo a villain, learn the stock responses, and how to leave, and return, after the interval. Simone Cornelius is a versatile performer with a good voice. Miya James, as the resident Californian, is, not surprisingly, the most out of her depth—Americans don’t do pantomime, and always look bemused when you try to explain it to them. In fairness, pantomime does sound an odd thing to put on stage, if you haven’t grown up with the traditions. But all three performers worked harder than they should have to with Little Red Robin Hood.
It’s probably too soon to predict when we’ll return to a world that’s recognizable pre 2020, and perhaps we never will. But that’s why it’s so important to be able to rely on the things that anchor us in a time of such unpredictable, and unwelcome, change. Particularly for our children, and their families. One of those things is The Sleeping Trees’ annual pantomime mashup for audiences of all ages. Isn’t that what the holiday season is all about?