REVIEW: The Crucible (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until April 29th)

Lucy Kierl as Abigail William_Charlie Condou as Rev. Hale -Alessia Chinazzo
Lucy Kierl as Abigail William_Charlie Condou as Rev. Hale -Alessia Chinazzo

It is one of the finest dramatic works of the 20th Century – but its intensity also makes it one of the hardest to watch.

The new tour of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is played out with such unremitting fervour that it leaves you breathless, desperate for a relief in its gripping four acts that never comes.

Director Douglas Rintoul understands that although Miller’s work was written at the height of the McCarthy Communist witch hunts in the 1950s its chilling message will always be contemporary wherever there is political upheaval, trial by media or gossip, or where humanity has the capacity to turn even the most perfect and upright society into a dystopia.

Set during the 1692 Salem witch trials The Crucible proves Aldous Huxley’s view, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” Even as nations rise and fall, there is nothing more deceitful as the human heart and there will always be those who manipulate while minds are open to it and while hidden agendas and dark desires are allowed to triumph unchecked.

The historical setting is fascinating in itself, and this joint Selladoor and Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, production sets the scene well of the early English Puritans who tried to escape religious intolerance only to set up a society in America which was just as restrictive and tending to the morally corrupt. Anouk Schiltz’s bare set reflects both the plainness and the insularity of the early settlers, both stark and claustrophobic.

There is certainly a timeless feel to this production, with even the costumes reflecting both 17th and 20th Centuries, and every one of the excellent performances is careful, measured and with emotional depth and integrity.

Eoin Slattery’s John Proctor is the angry hero, recognising his own faults and shortcomings yet never less than innocent of the toxic allegations and murmurings against him. It is a captivating performance, especially when the false accusations begin to stick and drag him down until he has to choose between saving face in the community or being honest to himself and his family.

Victoria Yeates as Elizabeth Proctor shows an inner determination and a steely resistance to those who accuse her and shows well her faith in her husband even when he doubts himself. Lucy Keirl’s Abigail is a fiery example of how twisting the truth for personal gain can become the most believable option.

Cornelius Clarke’s Reverend Parris is a clever study of a churchman bordering on hysteria for self gain and public status, while Jonathan Tafler gives a towering performance as a bullying Judge Danforth, seeing only sin and Satan in the faces of the innocent.

Charlie Condou’s role as Reverend Hale is not one of the largest, yet he has a commanding stage presence, investigating the allegations of witchcraft seriously and unashamed to distance himself from the fanaticism as events unfold. He is an actor we are more used to seeing on our TV screens, but on the strength of this we can only hope he will be offered some meaty stage roles.

This fine production of The Crucible is a harsh reminder of how paranoia and fear can be ignited by anything from greed and fevered self righteousness to tabloid speculation and mob rule and it remains a classic play for our times.

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