Goodies and Baddies

I’LL not have such looks, says Abigail (Erin Doherty), in a scene from Lindsey Turner’s The Crucible produced by the National Theatre Live. Photograph by Johan Persson.

SHE SAID, HE said and the vulnerable young woman servant without a voice hasn’t a chance in a context where she can be labelled one thing and hung for it. Push anyone far and ruthlessly enough with the threat of their worst fears at the price of their most sacred beliefs and the world may be your proverbial oyster. Indeed, the world is cross-hatched with so much blame and accusation, so much hysteria and fury, that arguably, Arthur Miller’s 1952 runaway play, The Crucible will never lose its prescience. Set in the late 17th century in Salem, Massachusetts, in a vortex of witch hunts, the work is a universal and constant appeal to balance in a world besotted with evil. The stage production of it, performed at the Olivier Stage in London this year, is still screening on National Theatre Live platforms, in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria today.

It’s a tale of good girls, sexual favours and the perception of evil, of the breaking point of a human being and the victory of power. On one level, it’s a chilling piece about the reality of the witch hunt, where people could be burned at the stake for doing things deemed suspect by the society in which they lived. Written at the time of US President Richard Nixon’s introduction of “moral values” into the American political arsenal and the Scares spawned by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Scares that deemed communism the devil (the Red Scare) and homosexuality grist for the devil’s mill (the Lavender Scare), it’s a play that holds its allegorical own with fire. They were times that crudely rent society apart by values that were not seeable by the naked eye, but rather were fuelled by beliefs and suppositions. Rather like the mindset that drowned women who didn’t dance to the right tunes in the 17th century, or the so-called ‘Swart Gevaar’, that frightened South African whites under apartheid to toe the right political lines.

Director Lyndsey Turner stages the work as a period piece, with the girls in pinafores and the married women with covered heads. It’s a curious take on the work which somewhat denudes it of its allegorical purity. Some ten years ago, Yaël Farber directed this work for the Old Vic Theatre, and stripped it much more aggressively to its suppurating and socially-critical core, in a way that hit you in the gut. Turner’s version of the piece doesn’t do this, and worryingly, sometimes verges on the soporific.

The text is pure and sharp and holds its own with a beauty that speaks not only of Miller’s project but also of work of writers of the ilk of Umberto Eco, in his Name of the Rose, which takes the nub of contemporary political concerns and looks at them through the darkened glass of medieval narrative. And while Turner’s production of this work touches on the edge of gimmickry with its curtain made of water, many of the female performers shimmer with visceral performances, including Mary Warren (Rachelle Diedericks) and Abigail Williams (Erin Doherty).

It’s a piece which is very hard work to watch because of oft slightly wooden performances by the ensemble that doesn’t ease its three-hour duration. Having said that, it is the hymnal music that teeters on the edge of being church-like and going off-key into out-of-tune terrains of threat and mystery that should be the glue that holds this piece together and raise the goosebumps on the back of your neck. Sadly, the music is not always given the priority in the volume stakes, and you find yourself hard at work trying to hear its spooky undertones and untainted overtones, while juggling the subtleties of the spoken text.

  • The Crucible is written by Arthur Miller and directed by Lyndsey Turner for the Olivier Stage in London. It is performed by David Ahmad, Fisayo Akinade, Zoë Aldrich, Nathan Amzi, Stephanie Beattie, Halle Brown, Sophia Brown, Raphael Bushay, Anushka Chakravarti, Brendan Cowell, Rachel Diedericks, Erin Doherty, Hero Douglas, Henry Everett, Nick Fletcher, Aoife Haakenson, Colin Haigh, Karl Johnson, Martin Johnston, Evie Marner, Matthew Marsh, Gracie McGonigal, Grace Cooper Milton, Alastair Parker, Joy Tan, Ami Tredrea, Tilly Tremayne and Eileen Walsh. Produced and presented by Ollie Gardner for the  National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Caroline Shaw (composer, arranger), Es Devlin (set) and Catherine Fay (costumes). It is being screened in Brooklyn Commercial, Pretoria; Gateway Commercial in Durban and at the V&A, Cape Town on 16 November 2023.

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