REVIEW: The Crucible@Theatre Royal

April 25, 2017

This is a truly magnificent production of a twentieth-century classic; its three hours seem to pass in a blink of an eye as director Douglas Rintoul expertly paces the play so that, in places, it has the heart-pounding intensity of a thriller. It’s also an exploration of moral corruption and decency and how the former often tries to pass itself off as the latter. The Crucible is the kind of play which leaves you both drained and strangely elated.

In seventeenth-century Salem a girl is taken ill after she is found, with some friends, dancing in a forest. From the simple fact of a ‘mysterious’ sickness dark rumours circulate about witchcraft. The girl’s father Reverend Parris (Cornelius Clarke) is the town minister and although being linked with sorcery could harm his already tarnished reputation – his focus on hell and damnation even seems to have alienated some members of this Puritan community – he insists on a full investigation. Soon Reverend Hale (Charlie Condou) arrives to find that Parris’s niece Abigail (Lucy Keirl) confesses to consorting with Satan. It’s a situation she exploits as she accuses Elizabeth Proctor (Victoria Yeates) of being a witch as a way of dispatching her so that she can be with her husband John (Eoin Slattery), a man with whom she had an adulterous affair. Before long there are scores of women locked up in jail and neighbour turns on neighbour and old scores are settled as one party points an accusing finger at another.

The play’s central plot mechanism is as finely calibrated as any instrument of torture. Slowly absurd insinuations of serving Lucifer seem to gradually gain traction until they harden into fact and the innocent villagers are unable to stop the inevitable progress of church-sanctioned mass murder. The scene where Proctor presents evidence that one of the children was lying genuinely had the blood pounding in my veins: it seems almost possible that actual justice – as opposed to justice of the inquisitorial court – will prevail. The tension between what should happen and what we know actually will happen makes for something discomforting yet absolutely riveting.

The success of any great production relies on its performances and every one is excellent. Clarke’s Parris is a hectoring bully who will drop his pious godliness – however genuine it might be – when he realises that the situation could turn against him. Condou, who at first is just another willing executioner, evokes strong sympathy as a man forced to come to terms with the part he has played in unleashing genuine evil forces on a small rural community. Yeates is a supremely dignified Elizabeth, and her final scene with her husband is incredibly moving. Jonathan Tafler has a commanding malevolence as Judge Tafler, a self-righteous fanatic who would sooner see innocent people hung that admit to having made a mistake. Slattery, as John Proctor, is the man at the very heart of the play and it’s as devastating performance as I’ve seen in some time. His Proctor is truly heroic; not in some trite comic-book sense – his flaws are too manifest for this. When we get to his final, reckless act of heroism we understand his actions even as we despair at them.

Continues at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 29.