I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Casting a spell
Be an accuser or be accused is the stark choice on offer to the characters in The Crucible.
We are in the village of Salem, Massachusetts, where Reverend Samuel Parris (Stephen Kennedy) is desperate to find a cure for his daughter Betty's life-threatening seizures. He is terrified that she may be possessed by the devil.
He and Reverend John Hale (Tim Steed) cross-question Betty's friend Abigail about dancing they were seen doing in the forest. Under pressure, Abigail accuses the Parris's slave, Tituba, of witchcraft.
From then on there follows a spiral of hysterical accusation and counter-accusation, manipulated by the religious and legal authorities which can only end in tragedy.
Jonjo O'Neill (John Proctor) background Sam Cox (Giles Corey), Leah Haile (Betty Paris). Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
The theatre-in-the-round augments this atmosphere of oppression. There are no easy escape routes from the tension for either us or the actors.
The production relies on strong ensemble playing. Rachel Redford, making her Royal Exchange debut, is particularly impressive as Abigail. We are torn between unease at her play-acting and duplicity and sympathy for her unenviable plight.
Peter Guinness is wonderfully cast as the Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth. He brilliantly inhabits a mindset which seems not to have a flicker of self-doubt. He conveys menace in every word and glance.
Peter Guinness (Dept Governor Thomas Danforth) & Stephen Kennedy (Rev. Samuel Parris). Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
My only reservation about the production was the way the male characters wore modern clothes and the female characters wore traditional dresses. Arthur Miller's script tells us that this is, amongst other things, a patriarchal society and such an explicit pointer seemed unnecessary.
Miller was originally inspired to write The Crucible as a result of his experience of appearing before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, in 1950s America, when Cold War paranoia about communism was at its height. Miller was convicted of contempt for refusing to tell the committee the names of alleged Communist writers with whom he attended meetings. Writing in his autobiography Timebends, Miller recounts Laurence Olivier's production of The Crucible in 1965 and overhearing a young woman ask her companion if the play had something to do with an American Senator. Miller said: "The play had now become art, cut from its roots, a spectacle of human passions purely."
This potent night at the Royal Exchange, directed by Caroline Steinbeis, is a reminder that The Crucible still strikes at the heart of how we can behave when under pressure and how fear can be manipulated by those in power. It looks as though it will be a long time until the play is no longer relevant.