Socialist Worker

New production denies The Crucible its fiery message

Arthur Miller’s play about persecution is still relevant today—but stripped of its politics it falls short of his original intention, argues Dave Gibson

Issue No. 2424

Kate Phillips as Abigail Williams in The Crucible

Kate Phillips as Abigail Williams in The Crucible


The Crucible gets its power through showing people standing up for truth and integrity in the face of a witch hunt.

Arthur Miller set his play at the time of the persecution of those deemed to be witches in Salem in the US state of Massachusetts in 1692. 

But he wrote it in 1953 when the US was in the grip of McCarthyism, as senator Joe McCarthy led a crusade against “reds under the bed”.

It is a powerful play that is still relevant today, as the ruling class try to whip up Islamophobia in the “war on terror”. 

We have seen this at play in the “Trojan Horse” witch hunt in Birmingham schools. There is currently a production of The Crucible on show in the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

But unfortunately director James Brining’s production does not do justice to either of the strengths of Miller’s script. 

It misses some of the nuances in Miller’s original script to the detriment of the play’s political message. The fear of witches in 17th century Massachusetts is not established strongly enough in the first scene.

The relationship between one of the main protagonists John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth is underdeveloped. As is the sexual tension between Proctor and Abigail Williams. 

In the original, Miller has Proctor season the stew his wife has made while she is upstairs, then compliment her on the seasoning. Instead, there is a distracting scene showing Elizabeth and her sons that was only hinted at in the text. 

This means that this nuance that dramatises the problems in their relationship is sadly missed. 

Powerful

Miller’s most powerful scene is played out in the courtroom. But Brining defuses that power by indulging in a brief scene between Proctor and Abigail set the night before.

Miller added it after the debut performance and most directors miss it out. Laurence Olivier decided not to include it when he directed the play in 1965. 

He told Miller that, “It destroyed that certain marching tempo, that drumbeat underneath”. In the script it builds through the first two scenes and then more insistently when we reach the court.   

The lack of evidence needed to condemn people to death, their refusal to listen to alternative interpretations or grant legal representation should be chilling. But it is nowhere chilling enough here. 

What does work powerfully is showing the girls collectively terrified by an invisible threat, thus breaking Mary Warren’s attempt to stand by Elizabeth. 

Actor Verity Kirk is the best Mary I have ever seen. The production is also problematic in showing how Proctor overcomes his guilt and makes a stand for truth, particularly in the last scene.  

Brining challenges the idea that there is anything cathartic about the ending. Instead he says it confronts us “with the futility of the wilful ignorance of humans”.

And that is the nub of the problem with his interpretation. Brining denies Miller’s intention without giving us a coherent alternative.

The Crucible directed by James Brining, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, LS2 7UP. Until 25 October, tickets from £12 wyp.org.uk

 


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Reviews
Tue 7 Oct 2014, 17:06 BST
Issue No. 2424
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