The Crucible

ABI BENNETT finds a ‘very strong’ cast obscured by clumsy direction.

Abi Bennett black ram Brecht crucible gielgud mccarthy Mumford ross macgregor Ross McGregor witches

Mumford Theatre, 27-28th September, 7.30pm

Directed by Ross McGregor


Gielgud once said that the most important part of any production is to know the play you’re in. I can safely say that Ross McGregor, director of Black Ram Theatre’s The Crucible, did not know what kind of play he was directing.

Unless everyone ever has misconstrued it, Miller’s play is an allegory for the McCarthy witch hunts, so we need to understand the characters as real people; in order to believe in the story itself.  So why McGregor decided to apply Brechtian methods of narration to this production was beyond me. Alienating the audience from the characters did not help us to empathise with them; it does the opposite of that. It served to slow down the action, and render some parts of the first act laughable.

The opening summed up the eclectic and confused nature of this production; a lovely, simple set, mystifyingly placed within a Brechtian white box, with the actors grouped in a sort of ‘Last Supper’ style arrangement at the back, below a screen showing a black and white montage of village life. Instead of suspending my disbelief, I could only keep asking myself, ‘Why?’ Miller uses religion as a metaphor for all forms of dogma; the connotations of the Last Supper mise-en-scène constrain it as a symbol. And surely the tone of village life can, and should, be conveyed through the production values, instead of shoving it down the audience’s throats with a redundant film?

These dogmas are crazy.

After scouring the Director’s Notes for the reasoning behind McGregor’s decisions, the only hint at his thought process was something about the difficulties of conveying a ‘clunky back story’. Was this the reason for having two of the girls becoming bitchy narrators during ‘freeze frames’, quoting us Miller’s stage directions? There’s a reason stage directions aren’t included in the dialogue; they’re there purely for the actors. A director should trust his cast to be able to form coherent characters, conveying their back stories to the audience through their relationships with other characters.

And the director should have trusted his cast, because, for the most part, they were very strong. Jonathon Sidgwick gave a convincing portrayal of a man haunted by his past sins, whose staunch values pushes him to the edge of his sanity. Coupled with a steely yet vulnerable Venetia Twigg as Elizabeth Proctor, their final scene together was emotional and intimate, moving some of the audience to tears. All but Tom Hartill occasionally resorted to melodrama, however. His Reverend Hale was a masterpiece of subtlety, creating a nuanced, entirely believable, character.

In fact, in the second act, where the director’s clumsy hand wasn’t so obvious, many scenes were gripping and intense. The tension in both the courtroom scene and the final scene were extreme, the audience holding their collective breaths. At its best, we could forget that we had seen this story countless times before, that we knew the inevitable outcome, and we could immerse ourselves in human drama unfolding before us. So why did McGregor feel he couldn’t trust the script, his cast or his audience? Miller’s words are enough, without the superfluous stage directions; his cast were talented enough, without the silly film montages, and we are intelligent enough to think for ourselves, without having every nuance shoved in our faces.