The Crucible

Fairmont Resort, January 11

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Georgia Adamson as Elizabeth and Julian garner as John Proctor. Photo: Seiya Taguchi.

Twenty-four hours of insistent rain washed away all hope of Sport For Jove’s The Crucible going ahead in the intended outdoor setting at Leura Everglades, and the twisting road to the alternate venue at the Fairmont Resort was so shrouded in fog as to bewilder even a local. But Damien Ryan’s striking production was clear as the fog was thick.

Plays are like windows, and a sad fashion predominates for directors to obscure texts rather than illuminate them. With this production Ryan slices to the heart of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, arguably the greatest American play of all.

Much is made of Miller’s tale of seventeenth-century witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, being a metaphor for the evil trumpery of McCarthyism, that relentless 1950s hunting down of those in the US with the slightest perceived affiliation to communism, and the wretched accusations that flew in all directions in the name of self-preservation. Such witch-hunts still thrive in our midst in many guises, and it would have been tempting to over-emphasise the metaphorical implications of the play. But Ryan has understood that the McCarthyist interpretation was always too narrow for Miller’s drama, which is a masterpiece precisely because it will resonate through the eras without being dumbed down into “relevance”. Those who would straightjacket The Crucible are those who would make Godot into God, or Hamlet merely mad.

Ryan presents his Crucible with the actors in the basic black of Anna Gardiner’s period-inferring costumes, and with the raw, Puritan, English accents of those fresh off the ships from Catholic oppression in the Home Counties. Gardiner’s Spartan set was a raised stage in the centre of the room, with half the audience seated on each side facing the other half. Even this seating plan became a metaphor for looking at the play from more than one perspective.

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Philip Dodd as Danforth (left) and cast. Photo: Seiya Taguchi.

Ryan has imposed nothing on the text other than showing the girls – the subsequent witch-namers – chanting in the woods at the outset: the action that immediately precedes the play proper. He has cast with precision, and then extracted inspired performances that carefully ramp up the tension, until the sadness of the predicament of John Proctor (Julian Garner), his wife, Elizabeth (Georgia Adamson), Rebecca Nurse (Annie Byron), her husband (Alan Faulkner) and Giles Corey (John Keightley) – good people, all – is overwhelming.

Garner presents a softer Proctor than some, while still being plausible as a strong pillar of the community cracked by a single lapse of lechery. The lone hole in his performance comes at the end of Act Three, when having been denounced, he, as the script decrees, “laughs insanely”. This is a hard moment for any Proctor to pull off and credibly remain in character.

Adamson is just as powerful realising the host of conflicting emotions besetting his wife, including the knowledge that she, held up as a paragon of truth (if not forgiveness!), tells but one lie and it dooms her husband.

The Reverend Hale (Anthony Gooley), one of Miller’s finest creations, shows how a well-meaning man may end up committing evil, and Lizzie Schebesta is superb in turning her heart from lust to stone as Abigail, the main author of the tragic executions. Byron’s Rebecca is wonderfully strong as well as saintly, and Matilda Ridgway turns in as potent a performance as any as the terrified Mary Warren, for whom her function as a witness has finally offered a skerrick of identity. Deputy Governor Danforth’s Act Three arrival is a fresh catalyst upon the action, and Philip Dodd has the presence to make it just that. Not to name the entire cast is a sin of its own. All deserve acclaim, as does Sian James-Holland’s minimalist lighting. This is a great work of theatre, brilliant realised in what is Ryan’s finest production in a long line of exceptional work. It should not be missed.

Until January 25.