Royal & Derngate’s Actors Company present Arthur Miller’s witch-trials drama in the Underground.
Penned in the 1950s when Miller feared incrimination thanks to the US Anti-Communist witch-hunts, The Crucible is set in 1690s Massachusetts during the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
Betty Parris (Laura Green) lies in an unrousable sleep after being caught dancing in the woods with her cousin, Abigail Williams (Corina Mann), Tituba (Meryl Couper) and a number of other girls. Her father, Reverend Parris (Steve While) prays for her recovery, while the rumours that she has been bewitched swirl around him. As further accusations of witchcraft are made, Abigail takes the situation into her own hands as an act of revenge on her former lover John Proctor (Davin Eadie), whipping her companions up into a hysterical frenzy that threatens to have half the town hanged for associating with the devil. Witchcraft becomes both a scape-goat and an opportunity for some in the town to prosper, such as Thomas and Ann Putnam (Adam Kozuch and Erica Mynard) who see the unrest as a chance to obtain land – and in the midst of all the mysticism and magic, lies the complex web of religion, politics and the subjugation of women – Martha Corey (Tara Powerville) is accused simply because she likes to read.
The whole cast is incredibly strong, although Mann, Eadie and Sue Whyte as Judge Danforth were sensational. Eadie’s Proctor is immensely likeable – a very human character and a man who has admitted his faults, Proctor is softly spoken for the most but clearly demonstrating an underlying strength and power, and desire to do right. Whyte’s authoritarian Danforth meanwhile commands the court with an aura of God-given righteousness before believably becoming horrified by the delirium induced at Abigail’s will. Mann presents the main antagonist Abigail as that age-old adage of the woman scorned – the early scenes where she begs John Proctor to admit his feelings are deservedly fraught, and she flits effortlessly between her many personalities – the young girl besotted with her previous employer, the angry spurned lover, and the manipulative driving force behind the trial itself; the moments where she claims to see spirits in the court are genuinely disturbing in their intensity.
In the Underground Studio at Royal & Derngate, the audience is plunged into darkness before the eerie blue and orange tones of Jonathan Blunsdon‘s lighting illuminate the rising panic of the Parris household. Anna Kezia Williams‘ design evokes the things we all associate with the memory of witchcraft – wooden planks reach upwards from the floor like gallows and stakes, made all the more sinister by the cast writing the names of the accused in chalk, solidifying their public allegations, while the orange glow that is present throughout brings to mind fire and burning. Fay Lomas‘ direction moves the actors between episodes of quiet and stoic stillness, to sudden moments of whirling and overwhelming movement taking over the space as the cast fill the stage by coming directly through the audience at all sides.
The second half sees the Underground transformed into the court itself, and as the residents of Salem take their seats on benches in front of the audience, we the audience become part of the trial – no longer voyeurs but living, breathing, witnesses to the depositions and the hysterical actions of Abigail and her companions. The tension is palpable, steadily growing as they claim Mary Warren (Jo Watts) is controlling their actions, reaching fever pitch as accusations take a wild turn.
Where this production truly excels is in the juxtaposed levels of quiet and alarm – the silent moments and pauses adding just as much to the sense of fear and uncertainty as the piercing screams and anguished raging. After the mania of the initial scene in the Parris bedroom, we see John and Elizabeth Proctor (Helen Gibb) trying to rebuild their married life after John’s adultery, a quiet window into domestic life that is shattered by the arrival of Ezekial Cheever (Mark Farey) with a warrant for her arrest, along with 16 others. The Actors Company production is a masterclass in the ebb and flow that creates suspense and leaves everyone on the backfoot throughout.
The Crucible may be more than 60 years old, and tells of a time usually relegated to the history textbooks, but with our current political climate and the ever-growing business of “fake news”, it may be more pertinent than ever. Judge Danforth’s cry of “A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.” in Act 3 feels uncomfortably close to messages printed by newspapers here in the UK about Brexit, and further afield in American politics.
A stunning, hauntingly atmospheric production, with powerful performances from a superb ensemble cast.
Performance: Sat 21 July 2018 (matinee), Underground, Royal & Derngate
Rebecca is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Bec also blogs at StageyRebel