Stunning, visceral and heart-breaking, pitting light against dark, superstition and hysteria against the steady flame of truth and love, Scottish Ballet’s The Crucible choreographed by Helen Pickett is outstanding and justly celebrates their 50th anniversary year.
This show will leave you shaken.
Based on Arthur Miller’s iconic play about the witchcraft trials in 17th c Salem, Massachusetts, written as a protest to the political ‘witch hunts’ of the McCarthy era, it is also a fitting subject in our own troubling times where false news is rampant. This production is also notable for casting a black dancer, movingly danced by Cira Robinson as Tituba, a slave, giving this role more prominence than in the play as she becomes outcast and scapegoat.
Light and dark are central to the overall interpretation and literally by the lighting designer David Finn’s lit screen which cleverly tilts to become a skylight in Abigail’s bedroom, or upright, marked with a cross, the background to the minister’s church. Fitfully lit trees create a distinctively spooky effect where the girls accused of witchcraft dance.
Skilfully condensing the complicated plot to its emotional heart and expanding scenes which are off-stage or in the past in the play, we are shown John Proctor and his servant, Abigail caught by his wife, Elizabeth, in flagrante. The young girls dancing in the woods are also joyfully naked, led by Tituba (clothed), in spookily fitful light, the witchcraft aspect emphasised as Abigail tears Elizabeth’s shawl to conjure a curse against her.
The most striking aspect is the close union of Pickett’s choreography with the music composed by Peter Salem. A spare orchestration, sometimes just a violin with a bass drone below or wild and chaotic as the hysteria mounts. The most memorable motif is the mounting tension of beats created by wood sticks on wood. Salem told me he had in mind the sound of a judge’s gavel. The brutality of the witch-finders and the judge’s verdict of death by hanging, is shown to be as hysterical as the possessed girls accused of witchcraft.
The choreography whether graceful or contorted and crabbed, melds the expressivity of contemporary dance with ballet, an unusual achievement in a ballet company, responding precisely to the music and not afraid to puncture action with moments of stillness. More fluid love scenes or the wild abandon and screams of the possessed girls are contrasted strongly to marvellous effect with the formal, regulated abstract moves of the minister and congregation. In control at first, these moves become increasingly faster as the minister and judges become gripped by their own manic righteousness.
Constance Devernay, playing Abigail is sly, pretending innocence to seduce Proctor, then convulses ecstatically, alternately crouched and spreading her limbs wide in her sexual encounter with Proctor. His complicated character, easily tempted then wracked with guilt is danced with impressive contrasts of vacillation or later strength by Nicholas Shoesmith. Fluent melodies express Elizabeth’s gentle and steady character, expressed in wide, sweeping arms and graceful turns, beautiful and sensitively danced on the first night by Araminta Wraith.
We do not see any hangings, only a gruesome row of gallows, their poles and knotted ropes bathed in a sinister bronze light. The accuseds' fate is skilfully left to our imagination as the girls have maroon hoods placed over their heads and are led out. Proctor is the last to be sentenced and the ballet ends on a dramatic note (which I won’t spoil by describing). Suffice to say, this show will leave you shaken.