Something pungent was bubbling away on the cauldron, centre stage, when I took my seat on the grassy knoll last night. Evocative smells and rosemary branches seductively strewn over the BOAT (Brighton Open Air Theatre) seating areas added to an eerie atmosphere. The actors emerged from woody glens behind us and, in doing so, they appropriately immersed us into this naturalistic setting, for the woods is the starting point of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It’s Salem, 1692, and mischief is afoot in a Massachusetts forest. A group of young girls are larking about, dancing in the moonlight, and cooking up spells under the tutelage of Bajan, and occult-believing slave, Tituba (convincingly played by Sarah Jeanpierre). Suddenly, the girls are disturbed by a praying - or is it preying - Reverend Parris (Conor Baum). The Reverend is father to one and uncle to another of these errant teenagers and the supposed shame of the discovery sends his daughter, Betty (Heloise Bliss), into a catatonic state. What ensues is a tsunami of accusations, fear, and loss of all reason, leading to devastating consequences.
The company describe this as a physical re-telling and the actors do indeed have an energetic quality, both in terms of their use of the stage and their interactions with each other.
This production and interpretation of Miller’s Crucible by Identity Theatre (directors and founders, Gary Cook and Nettie Sheridan) has much to be applauded. The staging is rudimentarily appropriate: rough benches and solid wooden tables give a 17th century Puritanical feel and the accompanying music (save for an incongruous vocal piece at the start) enhances the play’s supernatural tone. The company describe this as a physical re-telling and the actors do indeed have an energetic quality, both in terms of their use of the stage and their interactions with each other. This troupe work well together, most evidenced in the courtroom scene when the whole ensemble is on stage, creating a compelling and dramatic climate. The flyer accompanying the show describes how all the actors were encouraged to contribute ideas and suggestions to this production and I wonder whether they were given flexibility over their visual presentation as, for some of the performers, there had clearly been some expressions of individuality. Reverend Parris is a particular stand out. As he swooped down at the beginning of the set, in his devishly-vampish scarlet robe, with a pasty countenance, he absolutely stole the stage. But this is not an opening trick. It must be noted and commended as Baum gives a strong performance throughout. Reverend Hale is also particularly persuasive – he presents a commanding and grave portrayal as he battles to offer the voice of reason. As grave as Crucible’s narrative is, in this production there are flashes of humour too. Giles Corey (Andrew Wesby) brings an affable Last of the Summer Wine quality to the proceedings. Other strong performances by Abigail (Rosanna Bini), Elizabeth (Bea Mitchell-Turner) Mary (Nancy Wesby) and Rebecca (Kate Stoner) should all be noted. Occasionally, some of the actors might be accused of being at little shouty (although possibly they were fighting against Friday night road traffic) and here maybe greater variety of pitch and rhythm would have better reflected the poignancy of Miller’s script. But generally, the performances were well-rounded and heartfelt.
I really enjoyed this production. It was dramatic, enthralling and, for the most part, well-acted. And although the McCarthy era is long gone, this commentary on societal witch-hunting is still as – now perhaps even more so - appropriate as it was seventy years ago (see social media trolling and Presidents for details).