The Crucible | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Paul English, Grant Cartwright, Amanda McGregor, John McTernan, Elizabeth Nabben and Greg Stone. Photo – Jeff Busby

A few months ago, the Opposition's immigration spokesperson set off a moral panic when he suggested that asylum seekers in the community should be monitored by police through behaviour protocols, so they should not be allowed to harm good, upstanding and 'vulnerable' people. It was a shameful outburst, but sadly not surprising. A wild thing may say wild things.

The gradual descent into madness that occurs when wild things are taken seriously, and the inevitable human tragedy that accompanies it, are key themes of The Crucible. In Salem village, good upstanding Puritans believe they are under threat from witchcraft, and all the town is on trial as those responsible must be rooted out. It begins with a wild accusation born of petty personal vengeance and ends in shame, murder and moral degradation. Good sense unravels, and Miller's play takes us tug by tug.

MTC's production of a much-loved classic wisely eschews its usual elaborate sets in favour of a sparse and hollow aesthetic where shifting and imposing white shapes populate the stage as if to shield from outer darkness. If the whiteness of this open arrangement quietly mocks the purity and 'transparency' of the proceedings which are taking place in and around (and sometimes behind) these barriers, it also focusses our attention on the characters. This is a welcome effect as it helps us connect with the events on stage in the way good theatre should. MTC productions, for all their slickness and lickable production design elements, often feel like watching a giant TV screen. Not so here. While an icy wind blows through the open set, the heat is all in the performances.

A story about collective madness needs a strong cast to be convincing, and MTC delivers. Grant Cartwright stands out as Reverend Hale, the authority who licenses the panic early on and whose actions tip the scales on more than one occasion. His voice carries the full range of shrill certainty and self-doubt that marks the ebb and flow of events throughout. Greg Stone, Paul English and James Wardlaw turn in great support performances as Reverend Parris, Thomas Putnam and Ezekiel Cheever respectively – prideful and morally compromised, they are the story's ambivalent snivelers upon whose choices so much also turns. Elizabeth Nabben as Abigail imbues this key role with the rigid but brittle defiance it needs, supported by Amanda McGregor and Edwina Samuels as the other girls and Sarah Ogden as Mary Warren. All make their MTC debuts here, and the intensity they bring to the key scene in the Third Act means we can no doubt expect to see more of them in future. Brian Lipson as Deputy Governor Danforth and Anita Hegh as Elizabeth Proctor both anchor their characters with truth – Danforth's the calculated, iron certainty of the kind that sends dozens to their deaths, unshakeable even as it changes shape to suit events, Proctor's the calm, sober stoicism of the self-possessed. Their brief confrontation in Act Three crackles with electricity.

David Wenham's performance as John Proctor, the guilt-ridden eye of the storm, is comparatively understated. He is the play's moral centre, which he wears heavily, and has the best lines, which he delivers with well-timed pathos and the occasional comic flourish where appropriate. But it is in his silences where he does the most acting. The uneasy scene in the Proctors' house in Act Two and his prickly exchanges with Hale are among the best moments of the whole evening, and the tension which we feel mounting there reaches its peak in Act Three with a stare that would make Julie Bishop blush.

Not all of it works. There is an indecisive attitude towards accents and patterns of speech which is occasionally jarring and could have benefitted from more consistent direction. The first Act smacks a little of melodrama in its opening scenes and doesn't really find its footing until Cartwright's Hale arrives. The pacing of the final Act seems a little off at times, which robs its climax of some of its impact. But for the most part it all works wonderfully, and moments like the discovery of the needle in the poppet are so laden with absurd significance that they are felt deeply by the audience, whose response, in some of these most painful moments, is to laugh. In light of Freud's observations on laughter as a vulnerable release of pain and an attempt at self-assurance, this provides some indication that the play's deeper messages are hitting home. We recognise all too easily how easy it is to be carried away by the crowd, and we grieve our enduring susceptibility to it, even as we entertain the delusional conviction that we are the ones who would see as straight as John Proctor. That Sam Strong's production awakens such demons within us shows that it succeeds admirably. A fire is burning indeed.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Crucible
by Arthur Miller

Director Sam Strong

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 22 June – 3 August 2013
Tickets: from $77, Under 30s $59
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 |

Most read Melbourne reviews

For fans of the musical, the problems and changes to the book and plot of Chess are as familiar...

Master of the deadpan, harsh host of Hard Quiz, and heartless interrogator on Hard Chat, making...

If you’re looking for a show that’s completely different and unlike anything you’ve seen in...

It doesn’t matter how much you know or care about the legality of the Essendon Football Club...

Many comedians have been delving into personal struggles on stage, revealing truth and darkness...