Review: The Crucible

CONNOR WILLMINGTON-HOLMES finds this production of Miller’s seminal work very impressive.

Cambridge crucible Fitzwilliam Theatre Miller Tab Theatre

As a disclaimer, I went to watch – not review – this piece. My ‘reviewers eye’ was hardly focused. I’m still confident this was a very good show.

The performance opened on a stark empty stage, with just a hanging rope noose, crucifix and flickering candles against the concrete backdrop (for which Fitz famed). As the ensemble assembled, the tone was clearly set.

A compelling visual brought the show to life.

A compelling visual brought the show to life.

Arthur Miller’s celebrated script “The Crucible” follows the story of the Salem Witch Trials. The accused stand before the material court, Judges Danforth and Hawthorne presiding. Danforth (Joseph Prentice) took command of the stage, trying to reason with the madness proceeding; flitting between witnesses, depositions and roaring chaos.

A few lines were delivered with deadpan boredom, which jarred against an otherwise passionate cast. Ronald Prokeš and Joanna Clarke as John and Elizabeth Proctor shared a delicate chemistry picked up on throughout the performance, at different points in its decay. By the end, each tortured by different devices, we had seen Elizabeth’s transformation from an aloof bitterness to a – still tearless – terror. Both Prokeš and Clarke performed remarkably, to tease out this subtle shift in so touching a manner.

Clarke, pictured, was a particular highlight of the show.

Clarke, pictured, was a particular highlight of the show.

Sam Pulman-Slater too showed a startling plasticity, as Reverand Hale. From his introduction as a steadfast ordained man, called upon for understanding of events beyond the reckoning of medical doctors, Pulman-Slater brought out Hale’s slow corrosion. Questioning the validity of court and counsel, Hale follows his last vague intuition of justice to an end in some contradiction to the supposed authority.

With a performance of such fiery temperament and arid aesthetic, tacit details of stance and intonation were key. Putnam (Viktor Kewenig) responded to Proctor’s angered tirade with little more than a smirk, sinister and implacable. When voices were raised, as they often were, it is regrettable that some plot-driving phrases became indistinct in shrill cacophony. In an adaptation that revolved so centrally on dialogue, more care might have been taken to ensure that clarity of speech reigned a little stronger.

It's a particularly light-hearted play, no trigger warnings needed.

It’s a particularly light-hearted play, no trigger warnings needed.

The directors did well to maintain a continuity across costume and set, with simple white frocks or plain trousers and shirts. Criticism could be levied at this, but this adaptation surely depended on such simplicity, not as to detract from the bleakness the characters find themselves amidst.

Lighting and sound were used sparingly, in a tactful gambit playing into the minimalist elegance of the production. The Crucible is often toted as a period piece, to be done with all the bells and whistles or not at all. This adaptation lays a challenge against that claim, with but a few props it draws its strength from its cast alone. At times, the barren auditorium was a perfect host to the dark and troubling themes of the piece.

Bare and almost propless, The Crucible still carried a captivating energy.

Bare and almost propless, The Crucible still carried a captivating energy.

It must be said, however, that some richness felt to be lacking: an inevitable product of intangible forces the cast must reckon with. Perhaps this brevity was intentional, the very nature of the script points out cracks in earthly justice and vain hopes for redemption.

Having seen some varied adaptations of Arthur Miller’s classic, this one certainly ranks top among non-professional productions I’ve seen. Stripping back more than it seems credible to suggest is a risky move, executed well.

68% – an impressive 2:1

Photos: Johannes Hjorth