After the debacle of Resurrection Blues at the Old Vic, this splendid RSC revival of The Crucible, transferring from Stratford to the West End, is a welcome reminder of Arthur Miller at his peak.
Famously, Miller wrote his dramatised account of the tragic events surrounding the Puritan witch-hunts in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s as a thinly disguised parallel to the anti-Communist persecution of McCarthyism in the 1950s, in which he was a victim himself. But its powerful portrayal of the corroding effects of intolerance, bigotry, paranoia and hysteria apply just as much to the current climate of religious and political extremism, whether of Islamic fundamentalists or of American neocons.
At the outset, in Hildegard Bechtler’s striking design, we see the phosphorescent forest in which girls are abandoning themselves to Dionysian dancing shut out by tall white walls after the hellfire preacher Reverend Parris discovers them: nature excluded by Puritan zeal.
As Parris’s daughter Betty, niece Abigail and others, in a bid to avoid blame, subsequently denounce innocent folk for inciting them to devil worship panic spreads through Salem like wildfire. The temptation to confess and ‘name names’, especially when it provides the opportunity to settle old scores, is depicted with devastating psychological force.
Hence Abigail names Elizabeth Proctor as an evil spirit as revenge for being sacked as a maid by her after having an affair with Elizabeth’s husband John. John Proctor’s determination to clear his wife’s name and end the trials brings him into conflict with the authoritarian Deputy-Governor Danforth, who is bent on enforcing state control.
The exploitation of anxieties and prejudices for political gain is chillingly expressed in Danforth’s words, ‘A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it’, which find an uncanny echo in President Bush’s similar speech concerning his ‘war against terror’. And the general attempt to impose a rigid religious orthodoxy is reminiscent of certain notorious Moslem leaders today.
However, Dominic Cooke’s tightly controlled production wisely does not over-emphasise contemporary relevance but forcefully shows how suppression of freedom can tear a community apart.
The beating heart of Miller’s moral argument is passionately embodied in Iain Glen’s outstanding performance as the flawed but heroic John Proctor. As Elizabeth, Helen Schlesinger strikes the right balance between cold purity and conjugal love. Ian Gelder convincingly suggests that Parris is more concerned about his own social position than his flock’s moral welfare, while James Laurenson gives Danforth an understated menace.
And Robert Bowman shows how Reverend Hale, the theologian initially brought in to exorcise the children, gradually comes to understand that the real evil comes not from Satan but from within the human heart.