Ellie Paskell, Anni Domingo, Emily Taaffe, Charlie Cameron, Alexandra Mathie, Geoff Leesley, Lucy May Barker, Bettrys Jones, Patrick OKane, Susan Engel, Patrick Godfrey, Philip Cumbus, Emma Cunniffe, Malcolm Rogers, Paul Kemp, Gary Milner, Oliver Ford Davies
To watch the poplar blossoms drift down over the stage on a summers evening in Regents Park, alighting on bonnets, jerkins, and the weatherboarded stage, its hard not to retreat into Timothy Sheaders production of The Crucible as you might a costume drama set in 17th century rural America. The emphasis on visual realism, with sharp rustic costumes and textured dialects, dramatically gendered bodies, it could happily be approached as Mad Men – the Salem Years.
But Millers text of course is very far from rural idyll, and as dreamy drama becomes painful nightmare, that pleasurable mileage gained from being historically situated is swiftly reeled in. Irrationality becomes law, bureaucratic order swells from disorder, a well-made play spirals off into unthinkable tragedy. Despite the realism, The Crucible is somewhere closer to Kafka than to Ibsen.
And while the seventeenth and twentieth centuries collide with oppressive force, perhaps the play is perhaps now understood less well as a specific analogy between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyist communist witch hunts of the 1950s, but with a more universal set of truths about the operations of judicial and political power.
Because where Miller stops short of the Kafkaesque is that his judicial bureaucracy is not abstracted and unknowable, but rather frighteningly human. The mechanisms are in the hands of powerful men. What comes to be governing discourse, is at the same time both zealous and coldly logical. We are shown in forensic detail the violence that may occur under the aegis of justice.
The figure of Judge Hathorne is played by Christopher Hunter in a seamless and redoubtable performance, winding in all the testimonies of the marginalized women, the laws of Nature and the weight of law, in a dynamic and terrible display of human authority.
Millers blunt and angry prose conveys the fear of being caught in a situation that you are not in control of and struggling to understand. John Proctor, played by the hirsute and suitably broken Patrick OKane, whose deliverance from evil makes up the plays partial ragged and compromised conclusion, is the vehicle for this very modern sublime.
There is something in Miller of the best of North American thinking on institutions. Stemming from the absence of state support in its foundations, that dynamism and restless scrutiny, refusal of assertion, the notion that entrenched and giant did not equal moral right Miller turned these institutional myths against the liberal framework of Western Democracies.
Because like those poplar blossoms that drift over the stage tonight, which are the product of generations of intensive land management in the biggest urban conurbation in the country, so is our justice system a set of technical languages, produced by humans over time. Arthur Millers play spills the hypocrisy of liberalism out onto the stage, where it bubbles ferociously as if encauldroned. And if we want to join the dots the witches of the now are all around us. Progressively coercive asylum policies, a fragile human rights agenda, the shadow of Guantanamo, the return of the Sus laws, the list is as long as it is disheartening. But if entertainment can still be fiercely political, Miller continues to show us how.