The Crucible – National Theatre ★★★★

The Crucible at the National Theatre is a timely reminder of the destructive power of rigid dogma.

In his 1987 memoir, Timebends: A Life, playwright Arthur Miller wrote “I can almost tell what the political situation in a country is when the play is a hit – it is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past”. 

What does it say of the United Kingdom in 2022 that this year alone The Recs has reviewed Scottish Ballet’s interpretation, a sequel that imagines Abigail’s life after she flees Salem and now the third iteration of The Crucible with this production at the National Theatre?

Set in 1692 Massachusetts, a literal witch hunt is set in motion in Salem when the young girls of the village are discovered by the pious Reverend Parris, dancing “like heathens” at night in the woods. To throw attention off their childish dabbling in the occult, the girls led by Abigail Williams start throwing accusations of witchcraft at others in the village.  

All images © Johan Persson

The barely-questioned acceptance that the Devil is at work amongst them causes an instant sensation leading quickly into hysteria. It is not long until the growing accusations of witchcraft are soon co-opted by simmering personal grudges between villagers. As John Proctor asserts: “Vengeance is walking Salem”.

While these grievances fuelled by lust, land or long-standing jealousy are the spark, Miller’s masterpiece is underpinned by the notion that it is the systemic rather than the personal that enables the unfolding tragedy.

The rigid application of dogma whether religious or legal, moral or political, is ultimately what damns Salem. The Reverend John Hale, a minister from the nearby town of Beverley with a reputation as an expert on witchcraft, is called upon. Arriving with an arm-full of heavy books, he declares “they are weighted with authority”.

Deputy Governor Danforth, who is to judge the trials, also insists on his authority immediately being recognised. “Do you know who I am?” he demands, before asserting that four hundred people are in jail “upon my signature”. The sinister addition “and seventy-two condemned to hang by that signature” foreshadows the kind of justice he will dispense. To be accused is to be guilty.

Director Lyndsey Turner’s production finds contemporary resonance in how inflexible leadership institutions invariably become a threat to civil liberties. 

Turner skillfully modulates the play’s slow but inexorable momentum into the dark and the grim. Small individual decisions turn the screw, ratcheting up the gripping, dramatic intensity. Wisely, it is not a 3-hour slog only in the bleak. The first half is infused with a (pardon the pun) gallows humour. The cast draw the kind of laughter where you joke that things cannot get any worse – then they do. Anyone who has followed the politics of the UK in recent years will relate.

The cast deliver Miller’s precise, compelling language with flinty precision. Erin Doherty, best-known for playing Princess Anne in The Crown, imbues Abigail with a singular determination. As Elizabeth Proctor surmises “There is a promise made in any bed. Spoke or silent, a promise is surely made.” John Proctor’s inappropriate and unequal dalliance with Abigail sets her with an unbreakable vision that she will become his wife. There is a fatalism in her tenacity to this goal that allows her to shrug off even the hellfire-and-damnation warnings of Salem’s authority figures. 

There has been a tendency to cast John Proctor as a sort of handsome Heathcliff-like figure with the likes of Richard Armitage, Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neesom all having played the role. With no offence intended, Brendan Cowall is no heartthrob. There is a rough, ordinariness to his Proctor. He could be a farmer, both in stature and his guilelessness. It’s not his looks that make him stand out amongst the village folk – it’s the complexity of his character. Cowall’s slow-burn performance is perfectly timed to build to his emotional climax as an utterly broken Proctor pleads “Leave Me My Name”.

Tilly Tremayne makes an instant and lingering impression with her powerful stillness as Salem’s voice of reason, Rebecca Nurse. As the frenzy begins around her, she gives the kind of matter-of-fact dismissal as “a silly season” that only a grandmother of twenty-six could offer. Karl Johnson delivers a heartbreaking Giles Corey. His likeable, humorous curmudgeon is erased by mounting horror and self reproach. The realisation of how his inconsequential musings (about his wife reading), amidst the hysteria of Salem, now carry terrible consequences. Rachelle Diedericks gives an outstanding Mary Warren, by turns convincingly silly, arrogant, frightened and utterly out of her depth. Her vacillations are in direct contrast to the single course that Abigail takes. 

Credit must be given to Fisayo Akinade for the emotional journey that his Reverend John Hale travels. From the arrogance of his religious devotion at the start, to his complicity in the trials begins to waiver, to his anguished attempt to save as many of the accused as possible. The regret and remorse with which he delivers the fruitless appeal “In God’s name, sir, stop here” to Danforth is filled with visceral pain.

Es Devlin‘s set design is both striking and symbolically evocative. In a play about justice and injustice, the cell-like appearance of the three-sided curtain of torrential rain effectively imprisons the residents. The cavernous darkness of the Olivier stage stretching towards infinity reflects quite how insular the Salem community is. The endless black underlines that no-one is coming to save them. The darkness will inevitably overwhelm them.

Devlin’s set makes the artistic choice to distance the audience from the protagonists. While previous in-the-round or promenade productions of The Crucible have placed audiences in the heart of the action and made them complicit to events, here we are on-lookers, powerless to stop what is unfolding.

There is similar distancing resulting from the bookended additional dialogue. Still reeling from the raw power of Miller’s denouement, an unnecessary added epilogue intrudes. Like the end credits of a true-crime docudrama, we are informed what happened to various characters after the events of the play. Knowing that Elizabeth Proctor remarried four years later or that legend has it that Abigail became a prostitute in Boston is a curious misstep. Not only does it flatten the shockwave of the play’s climax, it robs The Crucible of Miller’s allegorical intent. Reducing the drama to being specifically about these characters in Salem is not without its problems given how the playwright adapted historical events to suit his story. The real-life Abigail Williams was 11 or 12 rather than Miller’s seventeen-year old. There is no historical record that she ever met John Proctor before the trails. As the characters were fictionalised for the drama, it seems a strange choice to offer a historical update on the real villagers of Salem.

However, these moments are few and what remains is a striking, intense evocation of Miller’s powerful masterpiece. A glance at current news headlines demonstrates the National Theatre’s production of The Crucible is a timely warning against the dangerous and dogmatic misuse of power. 

The National Theatre’s gripping, inexorably tragic take on The Crucible earns ★ (4 stars)

The Crucible Tickets

The Crucible runs at the National Theatre until 5 November

NT Live: The Crucible will be screened in cinemas in UK / Ireland from 26 January 2023

Book Now