There is often a lot of chatter about ‘historical accuracy’ when anything set in the past (be it screen, radio or stage) is produced; this can cover elements such as how people spoke, how they dressed, etc. as well as the thorny issue of ‘what actually happened’. In writing The Crucible Arthur Miller addressed this with a short statement on the matter – his altering of facts was for dramatic and practical purposes only, as his representation of the Salem witch trials was to highlight “the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history”. The play was written in the early 1950s (debuting on Broadway in 1953) at the height of the influence of McCarthyism in America, where suspected Communist or Communist sympathisers were interrogated and many ended up losing work or even being sent to prison. Miller was under suspicion himself, and was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1956.
The setting is a Puritan colony towards the end of the 17th century: an ultra-religious, repressed population living quite simply & restrained lives. Reverend Parris’ young daughter Betty will not be roused; the previous night, he had discovered her, his slave Tituba, and several other girls (including his niece Abigail Williams) dancing naked in the woods, in what appeared to be some kind of primitive ritual. He believes Betty’s been “witched” into a near-death state, and has sent for an expert (Rev. John Hale) to try and get to the bottom of it – the truth of the matter is that the girls were trying to raise a charm against Elizabeth Proctor, as Abigail had had an affair with her husband John whilst in their employment, and hoped to get him to herself. In the interest of self-preservation, all of the girls involved agree to stick to Abigail’s story that they were merely dancing, but are then forced to follow her lead when she claims she wants “the light of God” & “the sweet love of Jesus”, and starts naming local women as witches. The town is whipped into a frenzy as locals realise the finger of suspicion could land on anyone at any time: nobody is safe…
In a time of rapidly developing technology, and where personal lives are lived ever more publicly online, this could not be a more apt time to revisit this classic play. The idea of having to be very careful about what you say is key; sometimes even the most innocent declaration can potentially be taken out of its original context and twisted to suit the purposes of people who seek to destroy you in some way. Giles Corey mentions that his wife has been reading a lot recently – but he’s not sure what the books are about – which leads to Hale suspecting her of witchcraft, and she’s ultimately found guilty by the court which is hastily set up. Trial by social media is definitely a modern day parallel. The rise of opinions & avowals over expertise & logic is something else that should be familiar (the girls’ say-so ends up having more weight than measured arguments), as well as the ever-present question over morality and religion – is one really a guarantee of the other?
What Jay Miller’s production does so well is slowly draw you into the world of the play, familiarising you with the characters (and the people who will be portraying them) before launching you into this visually unfamiliar world. It gives a nod to the original story by initially changing the actors from casual modern dress to full-on Puritan garb, and then pulling it back to a version of the present as the action moves to a setting that feels more reminiscent of Oceania and Gilead as Salem plunges into dystopia. Oliver Cronk’s costume design and Cécile Trémolières’ set design play a key role in bringing this changing world to life, while Miller’s direction cleverly demonstrates a society in flux, shifting from their own world to an unfamiliar one.
Another interesting thing about this production is the decision to cast a woman as John Proctor; often you may conceive of him as rough & rugged, due to his perceived godlessness and life as a farmer, so this is a great way to potentially investigate other aspects of his character. Caoilfhionn Dunne could not be better suited to this task. Not only is Dunne capable of becoming physically intimidating, retaining a sense of brutishness you might expect from Proctor, but she also brings his vulnerabilities to the fore – Proctor is by no means a paragon of virtue, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a decent person. Nina Cassells is also brilliant as a scheming Abigail, and Emma D’Arcy is absolutely heartbreaking as the virtuous Elizabeth.
My verdict? An inspired version of The Crucible as a warning from history and a modern day parable – Caoilfhionn Dunne is outstanding as John Proctor.
The Crucible runs at The Yard until 11 May 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.