There are two people in a room, the director of The Crucible and her designer. They are talking about the final act, the one after the interval, and saying it would be a brilliant idea to fill the stage with water. They are so wrapped up in this – and whipping each other into an excited frenzy – that neither of them ask the fundamental question: why?
When ideas are brainstormed for theatre (I’m talking as an experienced theatre-maker), some of the ideas seem like a good idea and they go on the metaphorical ideas board. Naturally, other, better ideas form and the initial ideas seem silly and end up in the metaphorical bin. This water concept dreamt up by director Caroline Steinbeis and designer Max Jones had should have been binned at the outset. The water-logged stage is a distraction from the drama in act three in what is otherwise a sound production of the popular play.
It’s generally accepted that The Crucible was Miller’s reaction to 1950s America, the trials of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the nation’s paranoia after the Second World War. It’s also loosely based on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Its pertinence and relevance still chimes with modern audiences thanks to its questions about surveillance, religion, law and punishment.
So, what happens in the play? A group of girls turn their Puritan town upside down by claiming they have been bewitched by the devil and begin to accuse half the town of witchcraft – punishment is swinging at the end of a rope. It’s a marvellously complex piece with a fabulous court scene that would not be out of place in an Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, The Newsroom) drama.
The staging is simple but effective (disregarding the Blackpool Tower ballroom finale) and the costumes have a Brechtian feel with the women dressed in colourful period garb and the men seemingly having stepped off the Emmerdale set complete with wellies and padded gilets. At first this is a jarring spectacle but it ends up being a rather clever choice, reminding the audience that this could happen today, as it did more than 300 years ago. The performances are pretty solid throughout and at times the drama is gripping, moving and funny.
It’s become incredibly fashionable to present classic plays stripped down to the bare bones. And so here there are no props, no costume changes and very little else to distract from the words and the performances. It’s admirable and unstuffy. Accoutrements are not missed which is a testament to some fine direction from Steinbeis.
Even with its baffling end, the show is worth a punt. It’s on throughout October and will sell well due to its popularity with education establishments. However, at a running time of more than three hours, make sure to take supplies and a steely bladder so there’s no chance of two soggy ends.
By Lucia Cox
Photos by Jonathan Keenan
What: The Crucible
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
When: until October 24, 2015
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Caroline Steinbeis, click here