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The Crucible, National Theatre: An Electrifying Take on this Cautionary Tale

Johan Persson

The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s account of the seventeenth century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts was first staged in New York in 1953, and was inspired by the paranoia about Communists (or those suspected of being so) and their treatment as little less than devils in need of exorcism. In the juvenile-led spasm of denunciation and execution that seized Salem, Massachusetts in 1692-3, which saw hundreds accused of witchcraft and many townsfolk sent to the gallows, Miller found a chilling corollary – and quasi-allegory – for the career-wrecking zeal of Republican senator Joseph McCarthy and his kind in the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Today, however, this superb play strikes a somewhat different chord. Miller’s abstention from crude parallels has ensured the play’s longevity, and has allowed it to assume new connotations. It now seems to be about the present danger of groupthink, religious fundamentalism, and of the minacious mindset of those who believe that they should kill in the name of God.

In her thrilling production at the National Theatre, which lasts nearly three hours, but never loosens its dramatic grip, director Lyndsey Turner doesn’t labour the point but trusts the audience to make its own connections with our present troubled times. The drama is staged with a potent combination of simplicity and dramatic power that builds up an ominous feeling of dread and fear. Before each scene, designer Es Devlin swathes the action behind a screen of illuminated falling water, the beauty of that biblical torrent offset by bleak surrounding darkness.

As a consequence, this harrowing play achieves the intensity of a thriller, as the girls under the malign spell of their ringleader Abigail Williams (a memorably sinister Erin Doherty), accuses countless decent people in the village of witchcraft. Only gradually does it become apparent that Abigail has her own motives for revenge.

The in-the-round configuration of the Olivier Theatre stage brings the audience excitingly close to the action as the witch-hunters prosecute the innocent villagers. It also helps to produce the impression that we are in a crucible in which the characters are being boiled down to their essence. Tingying Dong and Paul Arditi’s foreboding sound score, with its electronic growls and rumbles, ratchets up the tension like a horror movie.

There is nothing flashy about the staging, which has a stark simplicity. The director creates a nightmarish atmosphere, assisted by Tim Lutkin’s shadowy lighting, conjuring the dread of a bad dream from which you can’t awake.

One of the strongest features of the production is the performances of the teenage girls who make the lurid allegations of witchcraft. They often speak in creepy unison, and screech and howl, shaking their long hair and writhing on the floor. There is an authentic edge of collective hysteria about them.

Brendan Cowell proves an exhilarating stage actor, with blazing eyes and a righteous fury about him, as well as manifest decency. His deep guilt about his brief affair with Abigail, who has become his nemesis, is powerfully caught. And his final reconciliation with his serenely wounded wife, beautifully played by Zoe Aldrich, who admits her own part in their troubles, proves extraordinarily intimate and moving.

Among the supporting cast, Matthew Marsh delivers a sinister, insufferably arrogant tour de force as the chief witch-hunter, Deputy Governor Danforth, especially as he puts the frighteners on Rachelle Diedericks’ terrified Mary Warren as she desperately tries to tell the truth. Karl Johnson is  quietly unforgettable as old farmer Giles, whose misgivings about his third wife reading books set in motion an act of domestic devastation, and Fisayo Akinade movingly captures the crisis of conscience of the Reverend John Hale who realises a dreadful travesty of justice has been done.

But even the smallest roles come to full-blooded life in a production of exhilarating intensity. The production accumulates a sense of crushing internal logic; the credulity of the visiting authority figures coalesces with the bewilderment of those accused and carted off to generate a suffocating atmosphere of total powerlessness.

In the current maelstrom of rhadamanthine religiosity, fake news and grim fundamentalism, it is striking to see the same themes echoed in a play written over half a century ago, and both  dispiriting and sobering to note that a cure for the essential problem – the churning of anxiety into animosity – proves as elusive today as it did then.

Until Nov 5. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk

NT Live: The Crucible Thursday 26 January 2023

A performance of The Crucible will be captured live from the Olivier stage and broadcast to cinemas across the world, reaching audiences who would otherwise be unable to attend the production in London. The Crucible will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from 26 January and internationally from 2 March 2023. 

Johan Persson
Johan Persson
Johan Persson

Elisabeth Rushton

Elisabeth has over a decade of experience as a luxury lifestyle and travel writer, and has visited over sixty countries. She has a particular interest in the Middle East, having travelled extensively around Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE. A keen skier, she has visited over fifty ski resorts around the world, from La Grave to Niseko. She writes about experiences and products for children, thea...(Read More)

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