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The Crucible reviewed

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” That famous question that the House of Unamerican Activities Committee once put to scores of US politicians, soldiers and Hollywood stars, was the impetus for Arthur Miller’s landmark play The Crucibleon at Brighton’s Theatre Royal until Saturday.

On the surface of course, the two have nothing in common. The Crucible is set in 17th century Salem. The Committee was conducting its heavy handed enquiries in the 1950s during an era that became known as McCarthyism after the senator who brought about the so-called ‘Red Scare’. But, of course, though in the play it is more literal – both involve a witch hunt.

The Crucible begins with a child or teen rendered apparently insensible after she and her friends were caught dancing in the woods, perhaps involved in some kind of unChristian ritual. The girls start claiming they saw the devil and with him various women from the village. A court is formed and before long the whole town becomes implicated in accusations, trials and executions.

The alleged crimes are invisible – the words and dramatic fits of the protagonists the only ‘evidence’.  Jealousies, grief and petty arguments come into play. A girl who has had an affair with a married man brands his wife a witch. A woman who has lost seven babies accuses the midwife. Even a dispute over a pig becomes the basis for an innocent woman to face the gallows. Those conducting the trial have their own community standing at stake. A clergyman denounces the proceedings and still the hysteria rolls on.

Like many people, I studied the play at school, and having seen a TV adaptation remember driving my friends mad doing the old accents afterwards. “We never touched, Abi”… “Aye, but we did…” This production however makes little attempt at New England accents, old or otherwise. The one notable brogue is Irish courtesy of Cork actor Eoin Slattery, to me the most memorable of the performances, who plays John Proctor – the flawed everyman who is central to the action.

The most recognisable are Victoria Yeates from Call the Midwife who brings nervous tension to the role of the falsely accused Elizabeth Proctor and Charlie Condou from Coronation Street as conflicted Reverend Hale who treads the line nicely between calm and reasonable and dangerously fearful of forces he doesn’t understand.

There is a simple moveable set with four different rooms. The most striking feature is the projection of stage directions onto the walls, announcing characters as they make their entrance and even ‘the curtain falls’ at the end of scenes. It seems an attempt to distance us from the history of the play and highlight instead its atifice and role as parable.

It’s a long play – three hours including the interval – and I felt some of the drama from the beleaguered girls ‘seeing’ the devil afresh dissipated in the last act making it drag. It’s certainly no historical romp and is probably best weathered if you already know the play or are particularly interested in the multi-layered subject matter. I wasn’t surprised to see a school party there on opening night.

As the programme reminds us, the concept of using a history play to hide an allegory for contemporary political comment dates back to Shakespeare. The theme of The Crucible wasn’t buried enough for Miller himself to escape the McCarthyism witch hunt.

So is the message still relevant today? My friend thought not, the play felt dated to him. I, however, started thinking about modern day erosions of trust: that political buzz word ‘post truth’, Trump’s cries of ‘fake news’ and how here the Brexit referendum created divisions within families, as does the side-taking in the play. Even the hysteria sometimes whipped up on social media came to mind. As we head towards a general election, with the mudslinging that typically entails, the play should, if not strike a stark warning, then at least raise a wry smile.

The Crucible is at the Theatre Royal, New Road, Brighton, BN1 1SD until Sat 29 April. Tickets cost from £13.75. atgtickets.com

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