Originally published on Theatre Bristol Writers – watched on 14th October 2015
From Sabrina The Teenage Witch to Hocus Pocus, the trials and tribulations of witches, or those accused of being, have oft been written of, but none more depressingly so then Arthur Millers 1953 play The Crucible. A fictionalised account of the 17th century Salem Witch Trials, the play served as a direct parallel to the McCarthy trials taking place in Washington at the time, with Miller exchanging the cry of “communist” for the cry of “witch.” Senator John McCarthy was able to spread a particularly chilling brand of paranoia throughout America with unsubstantiated claims of “communists in our midst’s,” and Tom Morris’s new staging of The Crucible holds true to that central idea, that fear and paranoia will hold out over logical fact, especially when it comes to saving your own skin.
The plays opens with Samuel Parrish, a money-obsessed Reverend, crying over the bed-ridden state of his daughter Betty. It is quickly revealed that his sorrow is due more in part to the rumours of witchcraft flying around the village, then her ill health, and he questions his niece Abigail Williams about her role in his daughter’s sickness. As more and more prominent figures of Salem appear in Betty’s bedroom, accusations and suspicions are thrown around and hysteria begins to build, cemented by the appearance of Reverend Hale, a spiritual doctor. Morris’s direction creates increases tension with the enforcement of the idea of the ever watching village, as characters stare in from the sidelines, creating a whispering gallery with each new revelation and a backdrop of trees push in on the actors from the back of the stage, the claustrophobic nature of a dense forest leaving the audience feeling just as trapped as many of the characters.
The presence of on-stage audience seating, which looks like a cross between an old-fashioned operating theatre and a jury pal pit, turns the audience, perhaps unwillingly, into further abstaining observers who saw but did not act, and serves particularly well in the later court room scenes as hundreds of women are found guilty of witchcraft. Proctor, whose wife has been arrested after false accusations from Abigail, tries to argue with the Deputy Governor of the Province for her life, but each piece of logical evidence is rebuffed through hearsay, conjecture and well timed acting on Abigail’s part.
As more and more people are accused of witchery, the play leaves us with a town on the cusp of revolt against the trials, and the Reverend Hale, played with surprising empathy by Daniel Weyman, serves as an increasingly rational voice in the play. He starts out an abject believer in the existence of the devil in Salem, but scene by scene begins to lose his innocence and naivety, as the bodies in jail begin to pile up and his sympathies for Proctor increase.
Although not as funny as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or Hocus Pocus, I found myself distraught and caught up with the proceedings throughout. Even my mother’s half time reveal that “it doesn’t end happily,” didn’t stop me rooting for the characters to get away with their lives and for logic to take hold. But Millers play is based on historical truths rather than dramatic conventions. Witch trials are cyclical, often unfair and despite our best intentions, we find ourselves as passive audiences rather than the reactionary heroes we imagine ourselves to be.