Theatre review: The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is at the Gielgud Theatre till September 2023. A crucible is an ancient melting pot, let’s get that out of the way. Used for smelting metals, it must withstand very high temperatures, to make church bells, for example. The choice of title is an omen for the community trauma that awaits, as metallurgy involves melting down a solid substance, skimming off impurities, and casting into a new shape. 

the crucible theatre play arthur miller

Miller’s message

You need to be feeling robust for this, it’s post war ‘humanity’s-f***ed’ material. Ignorance, cruelty, abuse of power, misogyny, ambition, revenge, paranoia, all mash together, turning a sleepy village (far from perfect, granted), into a death camp.  It’s ostensibly a critique of mass religious hysteria, but also a veiled swipe at McCarthyism. History is full of atrocities, in this case, a bunch of giggly girls who become assassins. You pity the powerlessness of the accused, who, despite all rational objections, are denied real justice because the legal system is equally contaminated. 

 

The language of misogyny

Whether it was intentional or also a sign of Miller’s time, the dialogue drips with misogyny. Women are addressed relentlessly as ‘Woman’ in a barky tone rather than by their names.  Even the term ‘witch’ is hostile, and although men were also implicated and executed, it was never termed a ‘wizard-hunt’. For witch-hunts to even happen they must have served a useful purpose in society, a brutal way of dealing with any woman who would not be gaslighted into submission. Women could be legitimately denounced and tortured, drummed out of town, or murdered.

 

 

Acting – good

It is a tragedy but I didn’t cry. And I’m a crier. The young actors lacked the subtle minimalism of The Greats who I so admire. I didn’t feel John Proctor’s pain.  To start with, I didn’t like his character; he was just another abusive man who thought nothing of threatening, shaking and throttling the womenfolk. Also I felt Gleeson over-acted in parts, with too much shouting, and an overly-jabby arm. The girls were also trying too hard, like a gaggle of Orphan Annies, but boy they could sing. I did feel angered by the smarmy lawyers. And there was sweet relief in the unwittingly witty contributions of Giles Corey, played by the best actor of all, Karl Johnson. The groupings lurched between overly static with lots of vertical bodies signifying the Establishment; and anarchic, with exasperated fisty-cuffs and demonic writhings as the balance of power shifted to the girls.

 

Set and Lighting – excellent

Reminiscent of Film Noir, it’s stark and monochrome, with dramatic punches of light in the gloom, so oncoming actors look for a second like death-masks. The floor is on a camber, suggesting a ‘slippery slope’. The wall of real cascading water which greets you was surely a technical triumph, but you wonder, with all the other signposts of impending doom, whether they needed to add pathetic fallacy. 

 

Score and singing – excellent stuff

The music got my hackles bristling more than the acting. The play opens in the church, with hymns in pleasant harmony, if slightly too intense, signalling a God-fearing community with a taste for the messianic. As the crisis deepens, and all sense of community trust melts down, harmony is replaced by ominous hums and moans, or dissonant crescendos.  

 

Costumes – excellent

Set in a 1700s New England village, the pretty pastel print dresses of the girls project innocence and optimism in the next generation. As the lawyers bring death and despair, the overall impression is blackness. 

 

Rebellious after-thought

For a bunch of teenaged girls who would have been treated as inferior their entire lives as a matter of routine, to overturn so suffocating a hierarchy, is something of an achievement. Especially when the enforcer is not themselves but the religious court which rules their oppressors. What a coup. The alpha-teen perhaps does not plan any of it, but she’s in a corner and sees the cracks in the system, sees that these misogynistic witch-superstitions could work to their advantage. By bringing down pillars of the community she deflects criticism away from their woodland shenanigans. Full marks for problem-solving. It could be seen as an empowering wake-up call to all women: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’.

 

Celebrity watch

Brendan Gleeson of The Banshees of Inisherin was spotted among the audience, in his capacity as proud father, watching Brian Gleeson in the star role as the tormented husband, who becomes another defiant victim of the religious courts, caught between two Truths. 

 

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