If I were a director (which I most certainly am not), The Crucible would strike me as an especially daunting task, not just for its weighty four-act structure and cast of over twenty characters. Arthur Miller’s exploration of paranoia and mob mentality is a relentless and often uncomfortable play. The audience is forced to watch as the seventeenth-century community of Salem, Massachusetts, tears itself apart over accusations of witchcraft, fuelled by a lethal mix of religious extremism and petty feuds. However, these themes also ensure that the play never goes out of date. This time it was reincarnated as the Mermaids’ final offering of the academic year, performed at the Byre Theatre last week.
While there are many good things to say about this production, it is worth first acknowledging that there were a few stumbling blocks preventing me becoming fully immersed. Firstly, the pacing. Now the length of the play is of course largely down to the playwright, and perhaps my own biases are coming into play here as somebody who has always preferred a snappy 90 minutes over a more ponderous two-and-a-half hours. However, when an audience is asked to sit for such a time, there is a responsibility to keep them engaged. Sadly, I found that on occasion my focus began to wander, particularly in the latter half of the play. Vast stretches of the play comprise characters simply wrestling with their conscience or undergoing a thorough interrogation. There were certainly moments where some livelier direction or a bit more animation from some of the actors was needed to inject some energy into the stage. In one memorable instance, a group of young girls fake demonic possession and let out bloodcurdling screams that cut through the theatre — I left wanting more of that.
My only other major criticism is tied up with the problem of pacing. The language of The Crucible is not an exact copy of seventeenth-century speech, but it is inspired by the court documents from the Salem trials and deliberately archaic in some of its vocabulary and syntax. While nowhere near as tricky to follow as Shakespeare, the language does still require that little bit of extra emotion to convey its meaning. Some actors managed this better than others, and those instances where I struggled to follow the dialogue contributed to my loss of engagement. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact problem, but as someone who had never seen The Crucible before, I was simply a little lost at times.
These issues aside, there was plenty to like in director Grace Cowie’s take on the play. The most immediately arresting aspect of the play was its excellent set design. All throughout the play, three beautifully constructed replicas of stained-glass windows hung above the actors, lit from behind during scene changes. The central window depicted a blazing fire and loomed over the action as a constant reminder of the violence and the destruction that zealotry can lead to. Then, as the curtains lifted after the intermission, the stage was filled with smoke. Only when it was cleared were the two nooses dangling in the background revealed. Although never acknowledged or interacted with, the nooses immediately informed the audience how far the witch trials had escalated since the last scene and provided a chilling reminder of how high the stakes had become.
Despite the grim setting, Cowie and her performers knew how to find welcome moments of humour in the play. Although brief and fleeting, there is black comedy to be found in The Crucible. The play exposes the small-town grievances that underlay the Salem witch trials, and so there is opportunity in the ensemble of supporting roles to ridicule their pettiness. The most deliciously brutal laugh however came from the central couple when John Proctor, wracked with guilt over his affair, forgets ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ when reciting his commandments. Lydia Seed’s seething disbelief as Elizabeth Proctor when she quietly reminds him left the audience not sure whether to gasp or giggle.
In the play as whole in fact, Seed’s Elizabeth was the standout performance. She felt the least constricted by Miller’s stylised dialogue and carried all the heartbreak of the character in her voice from her first line. Her movement too was shaky and uncertain, as if she was constantly in pain. Underneath all the whispers of witchcraft and the devil, The Crucible tells the story of an already troubled marriage that is put through extreme hardship. Seed, alongside Seb Allum’s John, knew this and gave the play its emotional heft.
Of the rest of the cast, Adam Spencer as Reverend Hale offered a particularly fascinating insight into the seventeenth-century mind. Spencer portrayed Hale’s fanaticism as quiet and scholarly, dependent on the pile of books he carries around with him. Hale as we meet him has a reassuringly simple worldview, where God will always protect the righteous and only the sinful can fall victim to the devil. Towards the end of the play, Hale must then confront the injustices of the witch trials and in Spencer’s furrowed brow we see not just discomfort at the false accusations but a man whose entire conception of the universe is being challenged.
Deep down, I suspect most of my problems with the play lie with Arthur Miller rather than this production. It is a long, sometimes plodding play, but Cowie and her team clearly approached it with determination to get to its dramatic heart. The stunning set design provided the most immediately obvious example of this. The Crucible is a play with a definite message to get across and by its end, Cowie had succeeded. Even if my attention was not held consistently throughout, by the time John Proctor made his final stand against the madness of Salem, I found that I cared about these characters and the values they stood for.