“I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder
I heard the phrase avant-garde mentioned several times in reference to Ivo van Hove whilst in New York and every time I bristled – the connotations in my head leaning towards a dismissive pretentiousness aimed at someone who I think is one of the most exciting theatre directors currently working. And it did make me wonder, especially in light of the reports of Katie Mitchell being booed at the Royal Opera House last week, about what feels like an instinctive resistance to ‘change’ from established audiences that just feels a bit sad.
Granted, with Broadway ticket prices you may well want to minimise the risk but it would be hard to get excited about another traditional production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible even with big names like 2-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in the cast. As it was, I was just as excited at the prospect of seeing Sophie Okonedo and Jenny Jules – both too rarely on the London stage in recent years – and of course, the chance to see van Hove at work once again was irresistible, especially since I’d let Lazarus pass me by.
And it’s a typically forward-thinking, abstracted version of Miller’s play, as one has come to expect. Avant-garde even 😉 Together with long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld, this heady mixture of sex, religion, and politics has been transplanted to a vaguely contemporary milieu, finding an analogue for the McCarthyite witchhunts in the charged atmosphere of modern-day high schools. It’s an effective reworking, not least in the chilling effect of a group of school uniforms plotting together, a recipe for trouble no matter the time or place.
van Hove also points up the supernatural elements of the story to a surprising degree, a whole suite of illusions calling into question exactly what powers are being wielded and by whom, which makes for a fascinating if occasionally flawed rethink as it pushes a little too far. What he is strongest at by far is the distillation of the whole spectrum of human emotion into moments of shocking intensity and there isn’t quite enough of that direct simplicity here, what with a wolf at the door, a girl in the air and a slight lack of dramatic tension.
That said, van Hove’s level at 75% is still way above many, many others at 100% and there are some gorgeously effective moments here, particularly with the older members of the cast. Okonedo is just glorious as an imperious Elizabeth Proctor and Jim Norton is almost unbearably sad as a broken Giles Corey. And if you perhaps long for Whishaw to stretch himself a little and imbue his John with fire and backbone to at least give the sense of some real fight against the persecution here, the emphasis on how decency is easily destroyed thus smacks with even more power.
Ronan is strong if not quite revelatory as Abigail, the accuser in chief, and there’s something a little knotty about the schoolgirl approach, in how her malevolence is never in doubt against the constant reminder that she’s a child playing adult games in entangling herself with the older John. And in questioning what we think we know of the play, and of our own reactions, you realise how van Hove is unabashedly refreshing this classic with additional thought-provoking layers of issues and meanings. And if that’s what avant-garde means, then bring it on.