It is impossible not to feel that this play has a timely relevance to our dissonant modern day society in which uncertainty is en masse. We witness an onset of insecurity through Miller’s intersection between two haunting periods of US history: The Salem witch trials of 1692, and the widespread paranoia engineered by the House of Un-American Activities Committee over a feared spread of Communism during the 1950s.
Frenetic dancing and witchcraft rituals in the opening scene leaves the audience feeling uneasy over the play’s immediate hysteria, and left me highly expectant of Sarah Amankwah’s role as Tituba. While her gestural performance fit the scene well, I felt somewhat disappointed by her vocal projection that at times seemed rather mumbling.
Jonjo O’Neill delivers a strong, dignified performance as John Proctor and is equally matched by Matti Houghton’s performance as his stoic wife, Elizabeth. Their on-stage relationship is one of the more striking aspects of this adaptation: It is clear that Director Steinbes is aware of the necessity to appeal to a wider audience, as The Crucible has been a fast favourite in GCSE, A-level and theatre courses nationwide. In recognising this, her production carefully blends more subtle themes of social interaction, gender, and sexuality with more obvious political issues within the text, and by doing so timelessly appeals to both the young and old.
I predicted some viewers might feel the mixture of accents to be confusing, but the blend of British and Irish accents seemed only to add to the authenticity of its New England colonial context. While the mish-mash of costume styles is at times slightly disjointed (puritan dresses featured alongside a Berghaus anorak…?) it only emphasizes the play’s ability to transcend time to the present day. The production’s visual oscillation between past and present is a jarring reminder that mass paranoia is in fact not all too alien a concept. In a world where an irrational fear of terrorism can be so easily stirred up over social media, pointed fingers and tales of witchcraft seem all the more pertinent.
Although at times Max Jones’s set feels a little stark, his design vision manages not to disturb the gravitas of the text. We witness a transformation in the concluding scenes as water floods the stage—a brave dramatic experiment that surprisingly isn’t too excessive. It serves its purpose as a powerful metaphor for the ‘purgation’ of countless unjust accusations.
The round theatre setting adds physicality to the feeling that the characters are involuntarily ‘pulled’ into a whirlwind of suspicion, as they are forced to wade their way through a murky onset of allegations. While the performance is undeniably somber, Jones’s watery set gives it a religious reverence that is mindful of the more existential elements of the play. Somehow, it works.
Having recently visited Miller’s alma mater at the University of Michigan to take part in preparations for his centenary symposium, it appears that modern dramatists, actors and theorists worldwide are eager to circulate his work today to make it accessible for all. It is for this reason that I was particularly excited to see that The Crucible was coming to Manchester. Miller is to this day revered by many, and serves as the father of the great allegorical play of the 20th century. This adaptation is not to be missed.
The Crucible will only be showing until the 24th of October, so book now to avoid disappointment. Ticket prices range from £8 to £34 and you can book from their website or call the Royal Exchange Theatre box office on 0161 833 9833.
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