Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” has long been mistaken for one-dimensional allegory. It’s true Miller used the hysteria, public piety and private lies of the 1690s Salem witch trials to dramatize the horrors of McCarthyism, but the play is far more than simplistic parallel. Prescient political thriller? Courtroom chiller? Adulterous love drama? A production as thrillingly intelligent as Dominic Cooke’s for the RSC reveals the 1953 pride-and-perjury play to be all that and more.
Cooke’s masterly balancing of ideas, action and emotion is made manifest in the opening coup de theatre. Jean Kalman’s fierce streaks of light pick Salem girls out of velvet darkness dancing excitedly amid scalded bare trees at the back of Hildegard Bechtler’s set. Catching them, Reverend Parris (a marvelously terrified Ian Gelder) snatches up his daughter Betty. Accompanied by Gary Yershon’s unnerving sound score, he sweeps her downstage to a plain wooden bed as the two giant, stark-white side walls slam together behind him. A single tiny window flies open to suggest the natural world outside barred to the Puritans immured in Salem’s chilly propriety.
Superbly choreographed, the sequence is over in about 30 seconds but, like a strong staging of the crucial opening witches scene in “Macbeth,” it sets the show’s abiding tone: engrossingly abstracted, powerfully allusive and scarily unpredictable.
With the audience already in the palm of his hand, Cooke maintains his grip by refusing to succumb to the spiraling hysteria whipped up by Abigail (a dangerously restrained Elaine Cassidy) and the other adolescent girls to divert attention from their secret behavior. Instead, he takes note of Miller’s calm tone, slowly building-up the evasions, deceits, fears, resentments and revenge. The resultant inexorable tension reveals Miller’s astonishingly intertwined plotting.
Cooke presents the play as a devastating critique of contingent lives. Every carefully delineated character has a unique bearing upon the nightmare unfolding in Salem; together with the profoundly mixed motives of fundamentalist religious repression — is this ringing bells? — everyone suffers the consequences.
Where others might emphasize the “relevance,” Cooke trusts the text. His careful pace, not a costume flourish, reveals that, as with most contemporary scandals, it’s not the actual act, it’s the coverup that kills.
Iain Glen plays compromised pivotal character John Proctor as a profound skeptic. Nicely at odds with the pious deportment of the rest of the more somberly dressed townsfolk, his louche, buccaneering swagger adds to the sense that this man is at one remove from his terrified, inward-looking community. Impressive though that it is, it does create problems.
Lending Proctor such intelligent disdain chafes against the portrait of the gradual politicization of an ordinary man, a vital component in the play.
Proctor lives not through clear-eyed assessment but instinctHis unthinking, elemental nature is what got him into a mess with Abigail in the barn in the first place.
Furthermore, holding on to that sense of detachment puts a strain on the final scene. Without seeing the moral growth beforehand, Proctor’s principled switch into painful understanding and martyrdom now happens dangerously fast. Glen pulls out all the stops to achieve this, but the sudden transformation threatens to teeter over into histrionics.
Glen’s lack of connection further isolates and puts unnecessary pressure upon Helen Schlesinger’s Elizabeth. Mercifully, she resists the temptation to fill the gap his distance presents, opting instead for powerful self-containment, which the events of the play shatter to heartbreaking effect.
Robert Bowman’s Reverend Hale grows from smug certainty to gripping desperation, and James Laurenson almost steals the show with a magnetic perf as presiding judge Danforth, a role most actors flatten by denying self-doubt.
Laurenson’s voice has immense gravitas; physically he flashes moments of red-hot threat. But he also shows a sudden chasm of deep terror as the contagion of doubt sweeps the courtroom with his star witnesses about to be exposed as frauds by Michelle Terr’s superbly artless Mary Warren.
Liz Ranken’s movement work is alternately earnest and over-elaborate. The girls’ frightening hysteria would be even more malevolent if they were more still. But this is a minor cavil.
The RSC’s subsidy creates a luxurious amount of rehearsal time that has allowed Cooke to catapult himself into the major league as he mines a great text with a committed ensemble. The result is the most urgently dramatic show in London.