The Crucible with Erin Doherty – National Theatre – review

★★★★

Erin Doherty in The Crucible at National Theatre London 2022
Erin Doherty in The Crucible at National Theatre London 2022
 

Back in 1953, when Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, a play about the late 17th century witch trials in Salem Massachusetts, he no doubt had in mind a modern day witch hunt in which a US senator persecuted perceived communists, especially in Hollywood. But it could be about any time when authorities demonise others to consolidate their power.

It’s a compelling study in how the process of a witch hunt develops a momentum of its own and triggers vengeance, fear and even mass hysteria. Lyndsey Turner’s intense production is powerfully acted by Erin Doherty, Brendan Cowell and the rest of the cast.

In a small town run by the church, some misbehaving girls try to get off the hook by claiming to be possessed by the Devil. This gets out of hand as they take the opportunity to get their own back on some respectable and respected citizens by accusing them of being disciples of the devil who lead them on. A trial ensues. Adults confess to outlandish encounters with demons, more accusations fly, more adults confess in a form of mass hysteria, and the children too start to believe their own tales.

The girls are led by Abigail. It’s a bravura performance by Erin Doherty. You might know her best as an excellent Princess Anne in The Crown but she shows her full range as an actor here. Her character is clearly a rebel but also scheming. So, we see her wheedling, pleading, and, in a terrifying scene, inspiring the other girls into wild-eyed, uncontrolled shaking, as if possessed.

Authoritarian power is just one of the subjects explored in Arthur Miller’s complex play, but it’s the one from which all elsefrom which all else arises. As we enter the Olivier auditorium, we are confronted by pouring rain. Every scene begins with pouring rain. Torrents of water team onto the front of the stage. It seems this community is already suffering the punishment of a pitiless Old Testament God. We’re told the community is a theocracy. No separation in those days between church and state: the Church is in charge and there can be no challenge to its authority.

Photo: Johan Persson

The church leader Reverend Parris is confronted by children secretly rebelling against the church’s rules by secretly dancing, among other things. Some of the citizens believe this behaviour has been caused by the Devil in the form of witchcraft. The priest is skeptical but he knows support for him in the community is shaky, so he calls in a preacher with higher authority and a knowledge of witchcraft: the Reverend Hale. A major trial follows, headed by Deputy Governor Danforth, played with a steely eye and a stern jaw by Matthew Marsh. He has his own reasons for wanting to stamp his authority on the community.

At this point, it’s a case of ‘to a hammer everything is a nail’. It seems obvious that the children are dissembling but, as the excellent National Theatre programme points out, the authorities see what they believe rather than believing what they see. As the witch hunt goes to extremes in the heat of the ‘crucible’, both Parris and Hale, given passionate and nuanced performances by Nick Fletcher and Fisayo Akinade respectively, begin to see how one-sided the trial is. They realise good people are being dragged down and note that ‘every defence is seen as an attack on the court’.

Production photo from The Crucible at the National theatre London in 2022 showing Brendan Cowell
Brendan Cowell in The Crucible. Photo: Johan Persson

One man who speaks out against the trial is John Proctor whose wife is accused of witchcraft. It’s a thundering piece of acting from Brendan Cowell as a good but flawed man. In a heart-breaking sequence, he nobly tries to reason with the Court and is brought down by his own honesty and the challenge he poses to the Church’s teachings.

What else is going on? Oppression of women by the church. They are expected to be silent and obedient. As the girls are indoctrinated by tales of hellfire and damnation, they are primed for believing they have been taken over by unseen forces. And they have a readymade means of excusing themselves.

Fear, revenge and greed all play a part. People turn on each other to save themselves. The girls are only too quick to denounce the many adults they resent. Ruthless people take the opportunity to gain land from those found guilty of witchcraft. There’s a lot to think about and be shocked by in this intelligent, frightening play.

It’s easy to discern many parallels more modern than the McCarthyite witch hunt. We can see what goes in all totalitarian countries where a weak authority cannot be questioned: the actions of the morality police in Iran for example, or would-be authoritarians closer to home for whom an alternative point of view or a minor misdemeanour can ignite outrage on social media leading to death threats and cancellation.

Director Lyndsey Turner has created an fervid production, only marred by a tendency at times towards melodrama. One nice touch is that nearly all the characters point fingers as they argue, a metaphor made physical. The masterful set by Es Devlin is appropriately black-and-white except when we visit the Proctors’ warmer-coloured home. An opaque ceiling hangs over hhe entire stage. Through it filters a diffused flouredcrnt white light suggesting no one can hide from a pitiless regime.

Crucial to the production are Tim Lutkin’s lighting and the sound by Caroline Shaw, Tingying Dong and Paul Arditti. The cast are usually lit from the side creating a lchiaroscuro effect, again suggesting no middle ground. A stretched low note drones in the background, ratcheting up the tension.

The impressive cast also includes Sophia Brown, Karl Johnson, Eileen Walsh and Tilly Tremayne.

The Crucible was performed at the National Theatre 21 September – 5 November 2022, and will transfer with cast changes to the Gielgud theatre from 2 June to 7 September 2023

Paul was given a press ticket by the producer.

Click here to see the review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel