STAIR rods of rain separate audience from stage in Lyndsey Turner’s production of The Crucible. This deluge is the only reminder of the outdoors, as all of late-17th-century Salem’s obsession with witchcraft happens inside, moving inexorably from sickbed to kitchen table to courtroom, terminating, appropriately enough, at the condemned cell.
Opening with our sole glimpse of Salem’s church, the town’s girls, dressed in Little House on the Prairie smocks, sing to the composer Caroline Shaw’s blend of plainchant and blue grass. Then the church setting fades, and the girls perform an updated version of Arthur Miller’s overture, setting out The Crucible’s premise as “Suspicions of the miserable towards the happy”.
As the girls recede to create a chorus in the shadows, Betty Parris (Amy Snudden) lies in bed, lifeless with fever, as the Parris household’s Barbadian servant Tituba (Nadine Higgin) pleads aloud for “my Betty” not to die. The entrance of Reverend Samuel Parris (Nick Fletcher) and his niece/servant Abigail Williams (Milly Alcock), replaces Tituba’s gentle ministrations with wild speculation on the cause of Betty’s illness. Once neighbours arrive, the minister’s questions about Abigail’s “abominations in the forest”, or “dancing”, escalate into fears of witchcraft.
For a moment, the intervention of the farmer and Parris critic John Proctor (Brian Gleeson) looks as if it could calm the volatility. But the community’s mood turns on a sixpence, and they decide to call for Reverend John Hale, a witchcraft authority from Beverley near by. In preparation for the arrival of witch-court justice, Salem’s citizens dust off their grievances. Parris tells his parishioners that they should be grateful to have “a man of my sort for sixty pounds”, and not begrudge him the £6 worth of firewood he takes from their land. “The minister is the Lord’s man in the parish.”
For comically litigious Giles Corey (Karl Johnson), the focus on lawgiving sharpens his claim against the landowner Thomas Putnam (Alastair Parker). And Abigail uses a stolen moment with Proctor to remind him that they have a history, or in reproduction-17th-century argot: “You took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart.”
With Salem aboard the witchcraft bandwagon, the focus settles on the Proctor household and a touching two-hander between Gleeson and Caitlin FitzGerald’s Elizabeth. Proctor laments “an everlasting funeral march around your heart”, while his wife struggles to get over his affair with their former servant. Even skinning a rabbit for tonight’s dinner makes Elizabeth sad. Their servant problem worsens when Abigail’s replacement, Mary Warren (Nia Towie), brings home the poppet that she has sewn to while away time at the witchcraft trials.
Es Devlin’s deceptively simple set contracts as the pressure intensifies. Proctor’s kitchen is sparser than Parris’s home, the courtroom’s grey, wedge-shaped ceiling bears down on proceedings, and the condemned cell is upturned chairs ghoulishly lit by lanterns. Here Proctor deliberates between his soul and his name, first opting for the latter: “Because it is my name and I cannot have another, and I have given you my soul, leave me my name.” But then, deciding that a life of falsehood is no life, he goes with his soul.
The National Theatre’s West End transfer reanimates Miller’s classic text examining social delusion. Milly Alcock’s Abigail is pitch-perfect as sometimes a step ahead, and sometimes finding her way. She is supported by great ensemble playing. And movement, ranging from Betty’s crowd-surfing of the authorities gathered around her sickbed to the girls’ syncopated, shrieking distress on seeing a vision, portrays fervent belief as anything but stiff-necked.
The Crucible is at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, until 2 September. Box office: phone 0344 482 5151. www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk