When I found out that one of my favourite actors, Richard Armitage, was going to appear on the stage, I was very excited, even more so because the play was The Crucible, one of the most famous and acclaimed twentieth-century plays in existence. 2014 is proving something of a vintage year for Arthur Miller plays, with All My Sons and A View From the Bridge receiving equally excellent but completely different productions at the Open Air Theatre and the Young Vic respectively. Even with these to live up to, however, The Crucible manages to blow them out of the water.
The in-the-round staging at the Old Vic works particularly well for this claustrophobic and threatening play about the Salem witch hunts of the 17th century (but also inspired by the McCarthyism of mid-twentieth century America). The simplicity of the set transports you to the past without becoming bogged down in period detail, the dark wood and distressed detailing of the backgrounds evoking the shadows and dark places of a vengeful and suspicious society. Yaël Farber’s direction brings out the themes of the play with a clarity and simplicity which allows the text to speak for itself.
There is not a weak link in the large cast; every single performance is outstanding. Richard Armitage prowls the stage, his raspy voice raging against injustice, protesting his innocence despite his deeply felt guilt about his brief affair with Abigail, and movingly conveying his feelings for his wife (an excellent Anna Madeley). Abigail herself is powerfully played by Samantha Colley, her vindictiveness and spite coming across along with her charisma and clear power over the other girls, whose displays of demonic possession are genuinely frightening. Natalie Gavin also deserves a particular mention as the frightened Mary Warren, who tries to tell the truth despite Abby’s anger, and Adrian Schiller is deeply moving as the Reverend John Hale, initially a party to the witch hunts but increasingly horrified at what he comes to recognise as a miscarriage of justice.
Much has been made of the production’s long running time. It’s true that the play is three and a half hours long – the first half alone is almost two hours. However, every single minute counts, and I was never once bored or restless. The scene changes do take some time, but I found that each scene was so packed with intensity that I needed these long scene changes to recover and mentally prepare for the next one.
This play is in the running to be one of my favourites of the year, and we’re only half way through. Absolutely incredible.