The Crucible, The National Theatre, 14 Sep-15 Nov 2022
On a drizzly November afternoon, Salem’s Essex Street feels dampened by post-Halloween stillness. With the decorations packed up for another year, tourist season is officially over and the town becomes another run-of-the-mill corner of New England until next fall’s regalia rolls around again. It’s no real surprise that Salem, Massachusetts, has become so synonymous with the supernatural and occultism: its shopfronts are decked in esoteric souvenirs and you can get your palm read sooner than you can get a cup of coffee. More than simply commercial opportunism, though, the town has garnered a solid and vibrant community who identify as witches and follow pagan rituals.
That Salem has curated its identity so defiantly around the occult seems strange to me, given that two blocks walk from the tarot readers and merch stores is a memorial to the 20 individuals executed during the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.[i] This was the deadliest witch hunt in colonial North America; estimates suggest that around 200 people were accused of witchcraft during this time, a disproportionate number of whom were women.[ii] But something seems to have been overlooked in the town’s evolution from witch-hating to witch-haven: the horror of the Puritan era resided in the fact that there never were any witches. What we should fear about the Salem witch trials was not the supernatural—but the impressionable, hysterical and vindictive potential of the human psyche.
This is why Salem proved such a potent setting for Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, which invoked the witch trials as an allegory of the fearmongering and repression led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s in the name of anti-communism. Reflecting on America’s ‘fixation’ on communism, encouraged by McCarthy’s Red Hunt, Miller found more complexity in the American psyche than a reactionary response to an imagined Other. Indeed, he claimed to have been motivated to write The Crucible by the ‘paralysis that had set in among many liberals’ in response to McCarthy’s campaign.[iii] What was so deeply unsettling about this period was not the perceived risk of communist subversion, or even the towering and authoritarian figure of McCarthy, but how fear can instil moral debilitation, distrust and betrayal. Unsettling, still, that these patterns of behaviour repeat themselves again and again.
A fairly accurate dramatisation of the witch trials, The Crucible is set at a time of rife rumours and paranoia among the people of Salem. At the story’s opening, the seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams has been caught dancing naked and chanting in the forest with other girls. Mimicking ‘pagan’ rituals, Abigail had been attempting to rekindle her severed relationship with the upright but nonetheless tormented farmer John Proctor by laying a curse upon his wife, Elizabeth. To cover their tracks, the girls ignite accusations of witchcraft that plague the town and challenge the integrity and faith of its citizens, from farmhands to religious leaders.
Despite the story’s enduring relevance, the National Theatre’s latest production of The Crucible, directed by Lyndsey Turner, avoids adapting the narrative into what would be a too-predictable meditation on Trumpian ‘witch-hunt’ discourse. Instead, this adaptation insists on its historicity by staying loyal to the seventeenth-century setting and original dialogue. The play perhaps speaks to the story’s malleability through subtle gestures such as the costumes, which resist placement in any one period, and the accents, which are decisively American as opposed to the chewy English of the early settlers. It is a sparsely set and tightly staged production which places its attention on the unseen and the unsaid: the creeping contagion of the accusations; the characters’ increasingly fraught relationships; and the moral agony of those who understand the situation’s reality, including Reverend Hale, whose path to disillusionment is forensically played by Fisayo Akinade.
The performances were rich, including a defiant interpretation of John Proctor by Brendan Cowell. Rachelle Diedericks brought pace and sensitivity to Proctor’s maid Mary Warren, a difficult role which requires measured attention to cowardice and helplessness without falling into pantomime. Erin Doherty, playing Abigail Williams, brought fervour but lacked the nuance to capture the equally cruel and vulnerable notes of her campaign to rekindle her love for John while attending to the power dynamics between him and her seventeen-year-old self.
Visually, Es Devlin’s set design brought cascading chords of rain which enclosed the stage and strikingly punctuated the production. The lighting appeared to ricochet through the deluge and sent electricity sparking through the air, framing the narrative in infectious zeal. Behind, the set was spare, but not simple; carefully placed chairs and tables tethered the action without overshadowing it.
Whilst critics such as The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar have suggested that the production’s insistence on itself as a period piece renders it too conservative, I think the deceptively plain appearance of the play is what makes it so compelling.[iv] There are myriad ways in which The Crucible could be adapted to our politically fraught times. This is not lost on many reviewers of the current production, who seem to want a neat frame to mark out the mess of our current moment. Lyndsey’s adaption of the play, however, recognises that any attempt to do so would seem trite—reflecting, perhaps, a sense of fatigue with overt political symbolism in the post-pandemic years. By resisting the temptation to pull any clever political manoeuvres, this interpretation of The Crucible lets the story do the talking, and reminds us that people are complex enough.
The National Theatre’s production of The Crucible will be released in UK cinemas with NT Live on 26th January 2023.
[i] Jess Blumberg, “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials,” Smithsonian Magazine, 23 October 2007. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/
[ii] John Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 11.
[iii] Arthur Miller, ‘Why I wrote “The Crucible,”’ The New Yorker, 13 October 1996. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/10/21/why-i-wrote-the-crucible
[iv] Arifa Akbar, “The Crucible review – stylish restaging is all beauty and no bite,” The Guardian, 29 September 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2022/sep/29/the-crucible-review-national-theatre-london