Like many people of younger generations, I first became aware of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible, when I studied it for GCSE drama. Getting a group of 15 year old girls to be interested in a play about witch hunts and religion in 17th century America (not to mention the context of McCarthyism) was always going to be a challenge. But ultimately it paid off and my whole class ended up falling in love with the play, which is why I was so excited to hear that Jay Miller would be bringing The Crucible to The Yard as the theatre’s first production by a non-living playwright.
Written as an allegory for McCarthyism, Arthur Miller’s most famous play tells the partially fictionalized tale of the Salem Witch Trials. When 17-year-old Abigail Williams (Nina Cassells) is caught dancing in the woods with her friends and her slave, Tituba (Lucy Vandi), Abigail concocts a fantastical story of witchcraft and the Devil’s work to explain her behaviour. She soon starts a chain of accusations against her fellow townspeople, leading to an outbreak of mass hysteria among the village. Things rapidly spiral out of control when many townsfolk begin tactically accusing their neighbours for land or out of spite. Abigail accuses her former employer, Elizabeth Proctor (Emma D’Arcy), of witchcraft in order to be with her husband John Proctor (Caoilfhionn Dunne), a man Abigail still loves after their brief affair seven months previously.
The production opens with a collection of chairs set out on the stage, facing the audience and labelled with the various names of the townsfolk (there are 19 chairs in total but only nine actors play the majority of the cast multi-role). The actors take on the roles of narrators, giving the audience information about the play before animating and slipping on American accents and in to period costumes.
It is clear from the get-go that Jay Miller’s production is going to be far from naturalistic. The production feels ambitious and Miller has included a wide variety of elements in the play. Costume designer Oliver Cronk has split the cast half into typical late seventeenth-century dress and half into 1950s-style shirts and trousers (a nice subtle nod to the McCarthyism context). Meanwhile, Josh Anio Grigg’s soundscape in the court room scene creates a suitably sinister atmosphere. Other elements, though, (like an Elvis karaoke, a sideways TV, drag queen like masks and brightly coloured microphones) don’t translate as well and feel like chaos for the sake of chaos.
However, this doesn’t detract from the acting in the production, which, from all cast members, is sublime. The production is led by Dunne, the first female actor to play John Procter, who performs with intensity and passion demonstrating that if the part is suitable for an actor, gender shouldn’t hinder casting. The scenes between Dunne and D’Arcy are the play’s strongest and most captivating. The pair have an intense onstage connection and their scenes are energetic and charged. Comedic relief comes in the form of Sophie Duval as Giles Corey, the Proctor’s neighbour and friend. Jacob James Beswick gives a commanding performance in the second half as the judges. All the cast members are strong, emotive performers and the production is clearly an ensemble performance, with no one actor standing out against the rest. Jay Miller navigates the often tricky issue of multi-rolling by projecting the character names onto a screen at the back of the stage, informing the audience which character the actor is currently playing, so that at no time is the audience confused about this.
Overall, Jay Miller’s production, with its impassioned acting, is poignant, relevant and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s testament to the cast, creative and crew that time flies in the three hour long play.
The Crucible is playing The Yard until 11 May. For more information and tickets, see the Yard Theatre website.