London’s mini-season of Miller rolls on apace. After high profile revivals of The Price and The American Clock comes something slightly smaller in scale if not ambition: Jay Miller’s revival of The Crucible, Miller’s stone-cold classic 1953 allegory about the Salem Witch Trials.
This production marks the first time the venue has revived the work of a non-living playwright and the first time that the lead role of John Proctor as been played by a woman.
Miller’s (Jay, not Arthur) staging swims with the trippiness that has defined much of his theatre’s output – few theatres in London are as consistently daring. Lurid lighting, throbbing sound design, liberal use of microphones. There’s nothing of 17th-century Salem here.
To begin with, the nine-strong, strikingly young cast sit spread out on stackable, village-hall chairs. A TV screen backstage displays Miller’s note on his play’s historical accuracy. The performers, still seated, start to read the text unemotionally, stage directions and all. Designer Cécile Trémoilères has covered the walls in bright yellow elastic bands and there’s a fake, white log-burner flickering merrily away at the back.
Slowly, things slide. Accents become American, costumes change from contemporary clothes to more period-appropriate ones, and the chairs are cleared away for something marginally more recognisable.
The staging never loses its signal hallucinatory sense, though. Creepy, masked figures regularly haunt proceedings. The TV screen, tipped onto on its side, shows a slowly evolving series of disturbing images – a noose, a face, a brick wall. The entire courtroom scene in the second half takes place on a purple carpet, with the officials dressed up like nightclub bouncers. The whole thing is massively, head-spinningly fun.
Caoilfhionn Dunne makes a righteous, principled Proctor. The gender-swap is barely noticeable, as the whole production is played pretty much gender-less anyway. She’s particularly moving in the closing moments, howling with anguish at the thought of signing away her honesty.
Emma D’Arcy is equally good as Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, coldly prim initially, then rock-hard and resolute when accusations of witchcraft are flung at her. Special mentions too for Nina Cassells’ baleful accuser Abigail, Syrus Lowe’s prissy Reverend Parris, and Jacob James Beswick’s brilliantly, infuriatingly priggish Judge.
It can be tough to get your head around it all. Miller’s (again, Jay) wilfully wacky staging decisions can often seem arbitrary, but that rarely detracts from their impact. A little of the play’s horror has been lost amid the mayhem, but when that mayhem is as exuberant and effervescent as this, that’s a sacrifice worth making.