The Crucible (starring Richard Armitage) stage review (The Old Vic)

The Crucible yellow light

A very earthy and spookily atmospheric production suffers from some dated attitudes: not those of the 1690s but the 1950s.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Richard Armitage

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

On Saturday night I attended a performance of a new production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at London’s legendary Old Vic theatre (where Kevin Spacey is currently the artistic director). I’d never seen the play before, nor had I read it — I knew about it only generally, as Miller’s allegorical take on McCarthyism, written during its height, via a semifictionalized account of the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. Frankly, I was interested mostly because Richard Armitage is starring, and I wanted to see if he is as mesmerizing onstage as he is onscreen.

I was surprised to find that, actually, he isn’t. Sure, he’s a very fine actor, and he brings a muscular presence to what is overall a very earthy and spookily atmospheric production. But his especial power as a performer would seem to require the intimacy of the screen. A lot of shouting and stalking onstage cannot compensate for the inability of the audience to get close enough to see fine gradations of emotion flickering across his face. Not even as performed in the round, as this production is: the audience is closer than with a traditional proscenium stage, not still nowhere near as close as TV or film bring us.

I don’t mean to damn with faint praise: Armitage is very good here, just not in any way that particularly distinguishes him from the rest of the very good cast, a combination of newcomers and veterans.

Mostly, though, I’m overwhelmed by how pissed off I am with the play itself. I know that Miller was not exactly known as a feminist, but I’m astonished by how the play doesn’t seem to have any appreciation for the fact that historical accusations of witchcraft against women have always been misogynist in nature, such as, for instance, punishments for transgressing against the chastity that has always been expected of women but less so of men (and punished less, if at all, in men). We do see in the play that the accusation of witchcraft against Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley, in an impressive professional debut) appears to be the result of an injustice she has suffered: she had sex with farmer John Proctor (Armitage: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Captain America: The First Avenger) — it was hot and steamy, we can guess from the way she talks to him about it, and she liked it! — and then his wife, Elizabeth (Anna Madeley: In Bruges, The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton), fired her and threw her out when she discovered this. Miller doesn’t seem to appreciate that the mini mass hysteria among Abigail’s female agemates — the sort of apparently possessed behavior that looks demonic, supposedly — is clearly a sympathetic reaction to Abigail’s abuse, and a generalized reaction to sexual repression.

Maybe that subtext was not as obvious in the play as written; perhaps it’s something that director Yaël Farber brought out. But nothing short of rewriting the play can change the fact that, even though it was mostly women who were executed as witches in Salem, Miller chose to focus his story on a man — Proctor — and decided that it should be all about his attempts to retain his soul (in both the religious and nonreligious sense) and honor in the face of an accusation of witchcraft leveled against him. Miller’s points about coerced confessions and ludicrous trials are well made, and it’s no ignoble thing to decide not to “confess” to something one hasn’t done and chose execution instead, the “choice” the accused have here. But all those points could have been made if this were Abigail’s story (as the beginning of the play seems to suggest it will be). Instead, it’s all about Proctor saving himself as he sees fit to save himself while tossing around words like “whore” about Abigail and getting no pushback for it. In the eyes of even this production, which should know better, Abigail is a whore.

This dates the play badly: not to the 1690s but the 1950s. And it dates this production. We might not expect any sympathy for Abigail and her peers from Proctor or Miller, but we should damn well expect some from a 21st-century mounting of this play. But pretty much the only woman treated kindly here is Elizabeth Proctor, the faithful, forgiving wife. Not cool.

The Crucible is now available to stream at Digital Theatre.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.]

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