Review: The Crucible, National Theatre

Es Devlin’s design, plus Erin Doherty and Brendan Cowell, lead a simply stunning production of The Crucible at the National Theatre

“We are what we always were in Salem”

She may not quite set fire to the rain but what designer Es Devlin does with water in The Crucible makes you think Adele f*cked it up by falling out with her over her postponed Vegas residency. As you enter the Olivier Theatre, an actual downpour dominates the stage with real intensity, framing the Puritan sparseness of the tilted platform, surrounded by near-apocalyptic rugged terrain and yawning back to chasm-like darkness which evokes the very “black of some terrible night”. Lit with exquisite painterly skill by Tim Lutkin who plays with shadow as much as light, Lyndsey Turner’s production has conjured stunning visuals.  

And given the masterly nature of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, it is a treatment seems only fitting. His dramatisation of the Salem Witch Trials, refracted through the lens of McCarthyism, has rarely lost its power but in today’s world it gains a new urgency. Whether the pile-ons of Twitter mobs and their pervasive bigotry, culture warriors unflinching in their dogma, the vast list of leaders unable or unwilling to admit their mistakes (being added to right thanks to our current leadership), parallels are screaming out in anguish. Turner cannily avoids making anything explicit though, allowing the dramatic rigour to let us find the resonances that sound loudest for ourselves.

Erin Doherty makes a blistering return to the stage as Abigail Williams. The instigator of the widespread accusations of witchcraft that spread through the town, Doherty’s angular and often awkward physicality reminds us that she’s still just a teenage girl in a deeply misogynistic society. Whether being slapped by a pastor or gaslit by her former (married) lover John Proctor, there’s a clear demarcation of the power boundaries here. Her actions being read as a reaction to this is thus persuasive, her delight in finally being able to control something of consequence turning sour as consequences come to bear – her mouthing too-late apologies to John breaks the heart.

Brendan Cowell also impresses as an earthier, more grounded John, a part of this working-class community being torn apart by those dogmatic higher powers who won’t be dissuaded from the carnage they’re wreaking, led with phlegmatic glee by Matthew Marsh’s Deputy Governor Danforth (who slithers in as if from the Magisterium). Fisayo Akinade offers up equally sterling work as Reverend Hale, at first very much part of the orthodoxy but increasingly realising what he is complicit in goes against everything he has been taught. This could be a sign of hope, that deprogramming is a possibility, but the desperation of his final appearance is a shocking acknowledgement of the damage done.

In a large cast, there is much, much work that elevates this Crucible. Karl Johnson’s tragicomic Giles Corey, a wry figure whose decency lasts til the end; Rachelle Diedericks’ would-be whistleblower Mary Warren, unable to stay the course; Tilly Tremayne’s impassive Rebecca Nurse; Eileen Walsh’s committed excellence as Elizabeth Proctor. This final two offer some gorgeously nuanced reactive acting in the final scene (as does Doherty throughout, she really is stunning), meaning that the personal hits just as hard, if not harder, as the political. The eeriness of Caroline Shaw’s compositions sung by the girls, the drone of Paul Arditti and Tingying Dong’s sound design, the only thing that will shudder you here is just how damn good it is – highly recommended.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
The Crucible is booking at the National Theatre until 5th November

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