“An everlasting funeral marches round your heart”
On paper, this latest incarnation of The Crucible at the Old Vic may seem everlasting – early previews hit four hours and with no change to the 7.30pm starting time, it may feel like an endurance test in the making. But settled in at just under 3 hours 30 minutes, Yaël Farber’s production emerges as a slow-burning success, much in the vein of the Streetcar up the road in being utterly unafraid to take its time to build up the requisite atmosphere of horrifying suspicion and fear that renders Arthur Miller’s play a striking and timeless triumph.
And creatively it really is a triumph – Soutra Gilmour utilising the in-the-round setting perfectly whilst Richard Hammarton’s pervasive music and sound wriggle under the skin and Tim Lutkin’s lighting creates as much shadow as it does light, all combining to heighten the increasingly nightmarish scenario as the action snowballs to the terrible climax we know must come. The immediacy and intimacy that comes from being much closer than usual (for the vast majority in this theatre anyway) is almost unbearable but completely justifies keeping the theatre in this configuration for a while longer.
Farber adroitly resists the temptation to update the play – we’re firmly in the seventeenth century here – and it is an inspired choice as it means that one can appreciate the different ways in which the story has been interpreted since Miller wrote it in 1953 yet not feel constrained by them. At the time of writing, Miller was processing the rise of McCarthyism, at this moment in time it feels like a critique of religious fundamentalism of any hue but crucially, it also works as a finely crafted drama about the Salem witch trials themselves.
It is impeccably acted from top to bottom – Richard Armitage blisters as a fiercely masculine John Proctor, castigating himself as much as those around him for a moment of infidelity which costs him dear; Anna Madeley’s virtuous wife skilfully shows the difficulties of loving someone who has done you wrong; and Samantha Colley is viciously convincing as the vengeful Abigail, leading the other girls of the village in some truly galling and powerful moments of mass hysteria. Ann Firbank’s achingly moving Rebecca Nurse, the conscience-driven reverend given powerful life by Adrian Schiller, Jack Ellis’ sinister judge, Natalie Gavin’s haunted Mary Warren…it’s something of a cliché but there really is no weak link here.
A production that makes sense then of the huge queues for returns and worth catching when the filmed version is released by Digital Theatre later this year.