If ever proof be needed that The Crucible is Arthur Miller’s finest play, one need look no further than Ivo Van Hove’s production which opened tonight at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The production proves the sheer, unrelenting power of the writing; writing which can endure a surfeit of directorial excess, a clutch of appalling performances, what seems like endless incidental music, a sometimes glacial pace and a curiously modern/futuristic set which is at odds with the Salem Witch trials setting. Oh, and a Wolf.
Van Hove clearly wishes to establish a wider resonance for the echoes of Miller’s themes than the McCarthy era and in this he succeeds absolutely. Religious fanaticism is shown as a clear and present danger to common sense and justice; fear is shown as a powerful tool for suppression; the rule of law is shown to be meaningless in the face of vanity, the pack mentality and cold indifference to death. Images of refugees fleeing war torn lands such as Syria and being turned away from help, or of young men being thrown from rooftops to their death because of whom they love, or of women being stoned to death because some man feels dishonoured – Van Hove’s production summons up the horror of all of those appalling situations.
In the scene where Deputy Governor Danforth questions Mary Warren, Van Hove uses a potent image: as the spotlight of interrogation moves from person to person, the questioners/accusers move in different packs, some because they are led by the mob, some because they are trying to influence the result, some because they are just there. It’s a potent image and Van Hove uses it cannily.
Repetition of images is a recurring directorial theme. Four times, Ben Whishaw’s John Proctor finds himself atop another, straddling that other; each time because of a different circumstance. Quite what this repeated image was about was unclear – but it must surely be something more than a reminder to Proctor of what led to the chain of events which destroys him and his fellow villagers?
Religious imagery is heavy-handed. Proctor is several times represented as a kind of Christ like figure: he is shown in crucifixion pose; appears with a scourged back (extraordinarily good makeup) reminiscent of images of Christ on the way to the Cross; and, at one point, strips off his shirt to face the apocalyptic elements that seem to rage against him and blind his form in light and energy – almost as though he was being resurrected while still alive. None of this seems relevant to Miller’s play; nor does it illuminate themes or narrative in any cogent way.
Jan Versweyveld, Van Hove’s long time collaborator, provides a set (and lighting) which is modern, but representative of many things: repression, indoctrination, obedience, power, imprisonment and sterile thought. In an opening vignette, the young women of the village appear in a stillness borne of conformity, facing a blackboard as if at school, and singing. Later, the classroom is upended and represents the home of Reverend Parris, then the Proctor household, then Danforth’s court and, finally, the prison for the condemned. On one side of the stage, a bank of windows suggest the natural world just outside; on the other side of the stage, electronic security doors suggest ever watchful eyes and bureaucracy; it could equally be heaven and hell which surrounds the main space, the classroom.
Occasionally, images are projected onto the Blackboard. Designed by Tal Yarden, these are impressive and successfully raise notions of the supernatural and witchcraft, as well as damnation and salvation. Whether they do this in any way greater than the text itself it highly debatable. Wojciech Dziedzic supplies costumes which are neither modern not historical but which are colourless and dull. They do not assist with any aspect of the story-telling.
In essence, Miller is writing about truth, its place in the world, the power of gossip and the ease with which dishonesty and self-interest can fracture and, if left unchecked, can destroy society. Late in the play, the heartfelt inquiry about why accusers are treated as truthful and the accused treated as guilty rings as loudly and as true now as it did when the play was first written. It’s a masterpiece of haunting, harrowing writing.
When John Proctor’s wife has their third child she loses interest in the conjugal aspect of their marriage. Proctor, a farmer, hard worker, a big, physical man of the land, cannot endure it, and lust overwhelms him and he, in a moment that he will regret for life, has sex with their maid Abigail. Abigail is a devious, mischievous creature, who dabbles with black magic, has revenge flowing through her veins, and who does not like to not get her own way.
She leads the other girls into mischief and then threatens them, buys their co-operation in her lies through wanton fear tactics. When Reverend Parris chances upon the girls dancing in the moonlight and performing pagan rituals, some nude, Abigail goes into damage control mode. To deflect suspicion on her and her friends, she and the girls name other villagers as witches and warlocks. These people are rounded up and imprisoned on the word of these thoughtlessly evil and cruel young women. Parris, an educated cleric, does not reveal what he knows, fearing it will reflect badly on him.
Abigail seeks to ensure Elizabeth Proctor is hung as a witch, thinking that that will leave John for her. But John fights her, causes one of her gang to recant her evidence and seeks to reveal Abigail as the demonic dissembles she is. But his intent is thwarted by the self-serving, pompous and deluded judges and priests who come to the town to rule on the lives and deaths of the alleged witches/warlocks.
Danforth’s “mercy” is simple. If those accused confess to their black arts, they will be saved; if they do not, they will hang. Of course, for those who take oaths seriously, the prospect of lying on oath is undesirable, at least, or a blot on their immortal soul at worst. They must choose between living a lie or dying for the truth. In the end, this is the quandary which faces John Proctor and it provides the searing climax of Miller’s play.
Van Hove’s production starts well enough and builds in intensity to the point where the girls start accusing villagers of witchcraft. But then it lists aimlessly. The scenes involving Danforth fall fatally flat and drag inexcusably. In turn this robs the final scene of its nail-biting tension. Equally, the central relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor never rings true and this, too, crucially cripples the momentum.
There is too much emphasis on the production values, the look and feel of the design, and not nearly enough attention to the textual detail and the intricate, convoluted relationships between the various characters and the consequences of their actions.
The result is that while the narrative still has power, the form in which it is presented and the delivery of the critical passages is bereft of humanity, truth and pace. More than anything else, the production is entirely lacking passion – the one thing that motivates everyone in the play, although their passions might be vastly different. And thus this production of The Crucible seems long and dreary when it should be pacy and explosive.
There are serious mistakes in the casting of key roles. Equally, there is some inspired casting – of performers who get to the heart of Miller’s intentions within the constriction/liberation of Van Hove’s vision. Like Jim Norton, who is funny, calculating, and rat cunning as the sound villager, Giles Corey, who sees what is happening around him and does the best he can to thwart the horror. Equally impressive is Brenda Wehle, serene and compassionate as the saintly Rebecca Nurse, and Ray Anthony Thomas as her husband, Francis, a man broken, stricken to the core by the injustice which smothers him.
Jason Butler Harner is creepy, hideous and repellent as the vain, avaricious and quite despicable Reverend Parris. He is wonderful. I can’t remember ever seeing such a splendidly hideous Parris. He is adept at making one’s skin crawl. As Judge Hathorne, Teagle F. Bougere is precisely right: vile, obsequious, the antithesis of legal propriety. As Ezekial Cheevers, the Court officer, Michael Braun is exact and committed, endlessly trying to do the correct thing according to law, even though he might not be bright enough to know what the right thing actually is.
The very best, most complex and moving performance of the evening comes from Bill Camp who plays the compromised character, Reverend Hale. At first, he seems the enemy to righteousness, but as events play out, he is its champion. His pleas for sanity go unheeded, but Camp ensures that every corner of the complexity of Hale’s character is brilliantly illuminated. His final cries as the last curtain falls are riven with pain and uncompromised honesty.
Ciarán Hinds is spectacularly self-indulgent as Danforth, and he reduces a complex, brilliant character to a series of yawn-inducing ticks and tricks. His delivery of the dialogue is completely absent intellectual menace, and there is no sense of the legal chase about anything he does. He likes the sound of his own voice too much, and even though he often descends into inaudibility, he makes a tasteless meal out of every phrase, denying his scenes the impact they deserve. What precision and pulse comes from his scenes is a result, entirely, of the work of others. Hinds literally throws the character away.
This has serious consequences for the dramatic impact of the play, as Danforth’s passion and presence should propel the final scenes. Hinds propels nothing but slows everything down, reduces the tension rather than ratcheting it up.
Sophie Okonedo, a wonderful actress, is completely, utterly wrong as Elizabeth Proctor. There is no chemistry of any kind between her and Ben Whishaw’s John Proctor. They are barely convincing as school friends, let alone husband and wife. These must be deliberate choices from Van Hove, but they make no sense. With an Elizabeth who is dull and unengaged, the stakes of the drama are uprooted completely. Nothing replaces them.
Whishaw is also, sadly, quite wrong as Proctor. There might be a case for playing Proctor as a new age man, but if there is, it is not made out here. Proctor needs to be a powerful, manly man and Whishaw does not come close to that; nor does he replace that basis for the character with anything of substance that works. He looks more like a character in Chekhov rather than Miller.
He is, admittedly, severely handcuffed by the drab performances from both Okonedo and Hinds. However, with others, notably Norton and Harner, there is a real fire to his performance. And, unsurprisingly, he is at his very best in the scenes with the temptress Abigail and the confused Mary Warren.
Tavi Gevison is excellent as Warren. She looks like a boy and so it is easy to believe that Elizabeth took her in as a replacement for Abigail. She is vulnerable, conveys her fear of Abigail directly, but also plainly conveys her misgivings about the lies being told and the repercussions for those lied about. Whishaw’s earnestness with her pays dividends, and those scenes, where he convinces her to tell the truth, are the best of the evening.
Saoirse Ronan creates a vivid, calculating and utterly morally bereft Abigail; I cannot remember ever seeing a better Abigail than the one she creates here. She plays the youthfulness perfectly, as well as the slyness – and her status as seducer is undeniable. She is charismatic and compelling, so it is easy to see why she commands the loyalty of the other girls. In a lot of ways, Abigail is a ridiculous character, constantly improvising to stay ahead of discovery; Ronan runs with that and makes her Abigail mercurial and surprising.
Between them, Ronan and Gevison permit Whishaw to do his best work. As interesting and genuinely compelling as that is, it is not enough to salvage the character or the dramatic core of the play, which remains unrevealed – much like the reason for the presence of the wolf at the top of Act Two.
The Crucible is a magnificent play. This is not a magnificent production of that magnificent play. Sadly.