South African director Yael Farber’s thrilling production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible begins with a moment of hushed alchemy – a spell, a game, a dance. Or perhaps it’s just soup in that steaming bowl? In fact, it probably is just soup. But these deeply religious, isolated communities make fertile ground for superstition.
Three and a half hours may sound like a long time, but Farber’s virtuosic pacing ensures not a minute or moment goes to waste. From the initial quiet, Farber builds the tension, driving with a steady, ominous rhythm towards the hysterical conclusion of the first act.
Factionalism within the church and rampant paranoia among the congregation prove a toxic combination: for the superstitious, cries of witchcraft and the devil are terrifying; for the opportunistically self-seeking they are useful. Disparate agendas are subsumed into the general panic. To raise a voice of scepticism is to be singled out for suspicion; to name others is to afford yourself some degree of protection. As a result, accusations multiply until over 100 people are due to be hanged.
John Proctor, a god-fearing farmer, is racked with guilt following an extramarital affair with one of the accusers and initially feels too morally compromised to speak up. When he does, he comes up against a frustrating combination of blind piety and bureaucratic intransigence.
The hysteria and eventual heartbreak are complimented by an undercurrent of sensuality. Richard Hammaton’s sound design rumbles ominously throughout and the air hangs heavy with woodsmoke. The performances are strongly physical: as John Proctor, Richard Armitage propels the production forward with a mighty, powerful goodness, and in their phony demonic throes the accusing girls writhe and contort their bodies into terrible shapes. The suggestion is that sex – and its repression by puritanical religion – is the real story here.
Farber’s production reminds us of The Crucible’s potency. Written in response to the Red scare of the 1940s and 50s, it is that rare thing, a play not just with a political message but with a political force. As long as it is fresh in the mind it will be difficult for society to descend into the self-eviscerating mania it describes with such articulate fury.