It is particularly appropriate that Arthur Miller’s modern classic The Crucible should be part of New Theatre’s 75th Anniversary season, as in 1958 the company was one of the first in Australia to stage it. In many ways, the play is representative of the theatre’s left-wing background and commitment to presenting socially-relevant theatre that continues to this day.
Admittedly though, there was a time when I suffered from a bit of “Crucible fatigue”, having seen and read it (as well as Miller’s 1996 film adaptation of his own play) a few too many times in close succession. Coming to it again after several years reminded me of what a masterpiece this work truly is.
One naturally remembers the plot, the powerful themes, and the tortured indignation of John Procter. Yet I found myself pleasantly reminded of many other chilling aspects of the play, such as the vengeance visited by jealous neighbour upon neighbour, their willingness to condemn each other to death out of old grudges or even outright greed.
Equally disturbing is the total injustice of a pious, authoritarian “justice system”, with the power and will to suspend human rights in the name of intangible ideals. Although I often cringe at the supposed need to find current “relevance” in older plays as opposed to merely allowing them to express themselves on their own terms, one does not need to draw a long bow to find contemporary echoes in The Crucible.
The tone is set immediately through visuals with period costumes by Pia Leong and Tom Bannerman’s modular set design, which perfectly captures the stark puritan setting, able to reconfigure quite effectively for each new scenario.
Director Louise Fischer confidently tackles this daunting text and has brought some very strong performances out of her cast, making some interesting “unscripted” choices, such as prefacing the dialogue with a depiction of the girls dancing in the woods, the event which sparks the whole tragedy.
Ben Brock embraces the raging indignation and torturous inner turmoil of John Procter, his vacillations between fury, indecision and remorse underscored by a palpably coiled spring of tension. Although some of the school crowd in the audience giggled nervously at a few of his more passionate outbursts, his emotion never felt over the top. Indeed, I would imagine it is an unenviable task to have to deliver Procter’s iconic line “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” with the spectre of Daniel Day-Lewis’ explosive film rendition inevitably in mind. Yet Brock delivers a searing performance of his own, and power to him.
Belinda Gosbee as Elizabeth Proctor nicely captures the pathos of a woman in danger of becoming a fairly unsympathetic character. Her demeanor when we first meet her is cool but never haughty, critical without seeming nagging. Although not always the easiest role to identify with, Gosbee does make us feel for her.
Leigh Rowney delivers something of a star turn as the thoroughly loathsome yet strangely fascinating Reverend Parris. Although not always considered to be one of the major characters, Parris has considerable stage time, appearing extensively in all but one of the four acts and dominating the opening quarter of the play. Rowney captured the self-important, paranoid and profoundly selfish little man, but also very effectively conveys his transformation at the end of the play into a hollow shell, crippled by remorse, if not exactly contrition.
Tori Hartigan gave an enthusiastic performance as Abigail Williams. Perhaps one is confused by memories of the greatly-expanded version of the role played by Winona Ryder in the film, but seeing the play again brought home that, for all Abby’s importance to both the plot and human drama, in the play she is in fact a surprisingly small character in terms of lines and time on stage. Perhaps given greater scope Hartigan would have had more room to shine.
The role of Judge Danforth is much larger by comparison and Frank McNamara, one of the elder statesmen of the New, attacks the role with relish. Delivering the requisite arrogance and credulity, McNamara manages to do so in a nuanced fashion without imbuing the character with a sense of knowing hypocrisy that would surely have been tempting.
One of the joys of the New is its ability to field a sizable cast that would be prohibitive for other companies. Although the whole ensemble is too large to list here, honorable mentions go to Matt Ashby as an unconventional yet captivating Reverend Hale, John Keightley’s comedic and sympathetic Giles Corey, and especially Pamela Jikiemi who delivered the best rendition of Tituba I’ve seen to date.
If you’ve never experienced The Crucible, or you haven’t in a while, then I certainly recommend you see this production, here on its spiritual home turf.
new theatre presents
by Arthur Miller
Venue: new theatre | 542 King Street Newtown 2042
Dates: 15 March – 14 April
Times: Thursday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 5pm
Tickets: $27 / $22 / $15 school groups / $10 Preview Wednesday 14 March
Bookings: 1300 306 776 / www.mca-tix.com