Review by Grace Henderson
Exposed, enclosed, surrounded – in Arthur Miller’s classic but timelessly terrifying drama The Crucible, no protagonist escapes these feelings. Set in the claustrophobic, deeply superstitious small-town community of 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, the play charts the mass hysteria that broke out during the real-life Salem Witch Trials. Though written by Miller in 1953 as a comment on McCarthyism, many parallels can still be drawn today with the tragic and unstoppable events that ensue during The Crucible. The finger-pointing and whispers that escalate out of hand during the course of the piece bear an uneasy resemblance to the situations we have all experienced in the playground, in the boardroom, and wherever it is easier to be the accuser than the accused.
It was an inspired decision on York Theatre Royal’s part, then, to make The Crucible the first production in its ambitious In the Round season, running until mid-November. To experience the play set in this way is to feel almost complicit in the events that bring about the demise of so many innocent people; literally encroaching upon the action makes it so involving, and as disturbing as Miller could ever have intended his work to be. There are moments, too, that are so human and emotional that the viewer is made to feel like a trespasser or, worse, a spy of the sort that got everyone in trouble in the first place. A case in point is the heart-wrenching second act reunion of hapless couple the Proctors (stand-out performances from Stephen Billington and Helen Kay), both accused and imprisoned separately up to this point. The moment of silence that passes palpably between them as they see one another again speaks volumes about love, resolve and the human spirit.
York Theatre Royal’s In the Round series carries the subheading “ensemble season” and, if The Crucible is anything to go by, this describes what’s on offer perfectly. Miller’s play employs a large cast to suggest the scale of the havoc wrought by the witch trials, and demands uniformly strong performances. York Theatre Royal’s ensemble delivers, to an extent that it seems almost unfair to single too many individuals out for praise. A nod must go to Neil Salvage, though, for finding and making the absolute most of the humour inherent in his character Giles Corey – comedy that is much-needed to balance out the tragedy elsewhere. Also noteworthy, and in keeping with York Theatre Royal’s ethos of nurturing emerging talent, is the fact that many of the ensemble players here are drawn from the RSAMD. Sharing the stage with York Theatre Royal regulars, and faces recognisable from television and film, these newcomers more than hold their own.
Not everything about this excellent production is new, though, and rightly so. The Crucible’s resonance is such that it doesn’t need to be modernised and revamped at every turn. Director Juliet Forster clearly recognises this, and as such turns her attention to exquisite period detail and a pared-down look and feel that evokes the restrained and repressed atmosphere of the time and setting beautifully. In the round, you can almost smell the starched collars of the prim-and-proper attire worn by the inhabitants of Salem, and feel the chill of the darkness that lies beneath the surface.
The Crucible continues at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 28 May. For further information please visit their website. Box Office: 01904 623568
Karl Andre Photography