In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, women are servants, daughters, wives and very possibly witches. This is the context of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, and one that the Edinburgh University Theatre Company have embraced in their latest production at Bedlam Theatre.
The company have decided on a traditional staging and interpretation of the play and there has been little attempt to modernise or recontextualise it. The set is an impressively authentic barn inside which the audience is seated along three of its walls. The theatre’s high, church ceiling is visible through the gaps in the barn’s roof, setting the play very firmly in its historical, puritanical context. Lydia Hann’s costumes, too, are aesthetically uniform and historically accurate.
Although the design is beautiful and admirable there is little new or challenging in this production to draw me in as an audience member. Arthur Miller used the play to critique McCarthyism in the 1950s. There is plenty of scope for twenty-first century interpretations to critique modern governments and regimes. There is also scope for directors to critique or challenge the ways in which women are represented and treated in this play. There seem to have been some attempts to do so, but this just doesn’t go far enough.
John Proctor is usually portrayed as the hard-done-by hero of this play – just a regular dude who has given in to his temptations but is now fighting for what is good and right. He has been seduced by his EVIL seventeen-year-old servant Abigail Williams, who EVILY made him cheat on his wife with her. John is an innocent victim in all this, despite being in a position of infinite power being a) male, b) much older and c) her employer. His wife, Elizabeth, is kind and pure and forgives John, even though he keeps lying to her and then getting angry when she politely asks him about it.
Douglas Clark’s portrayal of John Proctor in this production initially depicts him as less of a hero, emphasising his angry, violent behaviour. He is frighteningly stern and rough. He shoves Abigail to the floor, roughly grabs Elizabeth and threatens multiple times to whip his new servant, Mary Warren. Clark has his fists clenched almost the entire play and breathes loudly through his nose as if he is about to hulk out at any moment.
In an early scene where Abigail and John Proctor are alone together, he comes off as a rough, sleazy asshole and she as a young girl who is in love, rather than as a vindictive temptress as she could so easily be played. Sasha Briggs’ portrayal of Abigail is good and she gets the audience to empathise with her to some extent.
However, towards the end of the play John has softened and Abigail has disappeared. Elizabeth has forgiven John and we are supposed to as well. The final thing we hear is Elizabeth Proctor’s line “he have his goodness”. Ultimately, we are told that John Proctor represents all that is good and honorable, and are meant to forget his gross, violent treatment of the women in the play. A play does not have to end on its final line, however. So much could happen after this line is spoken. Some small gesture, such as a last glimpse of Abigail or an indication from Elizabeth that there is at least some irony in her words could have made all the difference and prevented us from having to bask in John’s heroic martyrdom
I would describe a large proportion of this play as “men shouting at each other and women standing in corners”. It is true that the cast is an even split of men and women (10:10), but unfortunately the female characters are mostly pretty silent and spend a lot of the time standing at the side of the stage watching the action. Abigail is probably the most interesting but a lot of the really cool stuff her character does, such as dancing in the woods and stabbing herself in the stomach with a needle, happens offstage and is described by men, after the fact.
Elizabeth Proctor is another interesting role, but she spends a lot of the play getting talked over by her conflicted, angry husband. In a scene in the Proctor’s kitchen, Alice Markey plays a very gentle, inward anger and frustration as she firmly kneads a ball of dough, which is a lovely reprieve from all the shouty men. We get a very real and heartbreaking sense that Elizabeth knows John could snap at any moment and that she has learnt to tiptoe around him.
Aside from perhaps Mary Warren, whose naivety and bewilderment is captured nicely by Katherine Payne, the other female characters mostly blend into one. Despite their lack of lines, director Elske Waite could have dedicated more time to these characters to differentiate them and give them a bit of strength. Celeste Macllwaine’s Rebecca Nurse, for example, felt no different from Josie Miller’s Mercy Lewis who is supposed to be over fifty years her junior.
Tituba, Reverend Parris’ Barbadian slave, is played by a white woman, which is problematic. To her credit, Molly Griffiths plays the character with some depth and avoids overt caricature. However, the lack of diversity in the cast overall is disappointing. I struggle to believe that out of a twenty strong cast there could be not one non-white actor but that seems to be the case.
Overall this was an aesthetically pleasing, accurate production of The Crucible with some decent acting, but there was little in it to excite or engage the audience.
A final note: go early and sit in the front row. In my seat in the third row I could only see about a third of the action and felt like I was listening to a radio play during some of the most important, climatic moments.