Left - Ben Brock. Cover - Belinda Gosbee and Ben Brock
Those Salem witch-spotters are up to no good again, in this return season of New Theatre’s production of the Arthur Miller classic.
The timeless masterpiece is given a largely straightforward treatment by director (and AD of New Theatre) Louise Fischer. We’re transplanted to New England, where a group of schoolgirls, lead by the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Abigail Williams (Tori Hartigan), wreak havoc when they convince the town’s elders they can spot anyone who’s befriended the devil, and suddenly even the most respected folk in the community are faced with the prospect of being tried for witchcraft.
Things look daunting from the get-go. Tom Bannerman’s set is dominated by a rather imposing backdrop, its forest-like spikes of wood with cloth stretched taut across foretell this journey into the dark wood of the human spirit.
For the duration of the play, we never leave this grim world. And the moments of hope, love, (particularly between the leading roles of John and Elizabeth Proctor, an upright farming couple, who have their own reason to be suspicious of Abigail and her posse), and dignity which Miller brilliantly constructs are all the more powerful for being set against this very dark time in American history.
The 20-odd cast, ranging from 12 years of age to quite senior, keeps the stakes high throughout the play and should all be highly commended. The pace doesn’t slacken, despite many courtroom scenes and lengthy speeches, which are often the pitfall for dramatic tension (ironically when you need it most).
The only gripe is the unfortunate choice to make the cast adopt regional UK accents to represent these early inhabitants of the state of New England. While it is a valid attempt at period authenticity, it does seem to hamper many of the ensemble somewhat.
It’s a clear testament to this hard-working cast that despite any inconsistencies of accent, they don’t fail to move. The climactic scene where Abigail and the girls confront a wavering Mary Warren (a spot-on performance by Stephanie Begg) is effectively staged. Ben Brock’s final moments on stage as the torn and anguished John Proctor are completely riveting, his tormented rage is goosebump-inducing. Mention should also be made of Belinda Gosbee’s stoic Elizabeth Proctor and Frank McNamara does an incredible job as the infuriatingly pious Judge Danforth.
Written as a response to the McCarthy anti-communist trials and mass hysteria of the 1950s, this is a play that clearly doesn’t date. In a town which has just seen thousands of World Youth Day pilgrims (and their fearless leader) descend en mass, which can turn on an allegedly bullying contestant of Australia’s Next Top Model in a second, and which uses a TV chat show to put a controversial AFL player on trial, Miller’s themes of religious grandstanding and a media-led pack mentality still very much resonate.
by Arthur Miller
Venue: Seymour Centre | Cnr Cleveland st & City Rd, Chippendale
Dates: 13 August – 6 September
Times: Tue 6.30pm (followed by Q&A); Wednesday 10.30am; Thursday 10.30am (from 21 August); Thursday – Saturday 8.pm
Tickets: $34 Adult; $25 Concession; Tight Arse Tuesdays $22; School Groups $20
Bookings: 02 9351 7940 or www.seymourcentre.com.au