It is unclear whether London is enjoying an Arthur Miller renaissance or whether he is one of those playwrights, like Ibsen or Chekhov, who is bankable enough and with enough star roles in the canon that he will always hover on the fringes ready for a new production. Either way, David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker combined in a pretty much perfect, highly traditional, All My Sons back in 2010, whilst earlier this year Ivo van Hove gave us a radically stripped back A View From A Bridge built around an absolutely blistering performance by Mark Strong.
Now, just metres down the road from where Strong put in a decent early bid for performance of the year, we have Miller’s The Crucible; a play that is audacious enough to not just have one Eddie Carbone role but several. It is Richard Armitage, playing John Proctor, who dominates the posters – one presumes Hobbit-y fame and a suitably jawline is the primary reason for this but it is a rather misleading image; Proctor may be a central figure, but this is a play that revels in a large cast and in the searching light that Miller casts across the residents of Salem.
That minor quibble aside, a mark of the power of this production is that the audience sat rapt for 3½ hours on the hottest day of the year whilst being subjected to periodic blasts of burning herbs and smoke effects. As good as Miller’s writing may by, those conditions did have the potential to induce a most literal understanding of the play’s title to the poor, sweltering audience members.
It is to the full credit of Yaël Farber that the long running time rarely seems like a drain and the action, simply staged but highly evocative of the period, speeds along building an inexorable momentum through to the third act climax before the sudden transition to a final act of quiet, where the heady atmosphere that has propelled the trials disappears with the disappearance of Abigail and space is given to reflection, on both spiritual and human levels. This is the much-needed calm after the storm and the reflection is for both Miller’s characters and for the audience who are suddenly pulled back out of the manic paranoia of the town.
Farber was responsible for the wildly successful Mies Julie – a South African-set re-examining of Strindberg’s classic – and given the contemporary allegories can be seen as strong now as they were when Miller wrote the play in the long shadow of McCarthyism, it must of have been tempting to look for a way to pin The Crucible to the modern world.
However Farber plays it straight and lets the parallels speak for themselves. It is Miller’s ability to create characters that are of their time but are yet clearly visible in the 21s century that makes The Crucible such an enduring work. The manipulations of Abigail, the fallibility of John Proctor and the hypocrisy of Judge Danforth are traits that are, and will remain, commonplace for as long as there are still humans walking the earth.
The characters in The Crucible may talk in terms of the soul but Miller’s writing is concerned about the psyche. There may be much talk about God and the Devil but it is human emotion that drives much of the action and Farber conjures up periods of quiet amid the maelstrom that allows the audience a moment to glance into the hidden frailties of the characters.
Considering the reputation that accompanies Ivo van Hove the first thing to be said about his production of Arthur Miller’s famous play is that it’s more restrained than might have been expected. This is not to suggest that it is performed in the shadows of the play’s reputation but rather that van Hove has created a singular work of such potency that despite stripping away external features and focusing intently on the performances, it retains the power of the great naturalistic dramas.
Van Hove is a director that appears to relish the challenge of recasting great works in a new light; he is happy to cross cultural mediums and recent work includes the Antonioni Project, which re-enacted the Italian director’s films, and a highly-lauded adaptation of Strindberg’s Scenes from a Marriage. He has demonstrated a desire to bring new perspectives to classic works and this reached its peak with the hugely ambitious Roman Tragedies, which came to the Barbican in 2009. The production brought together Shakespeare’s roman plays and pulled them in to the modern era through an immersive multimedia spectacle that captured the increasingly symbiotic relationship between news and drama in the age of 24-hour reporting.
He is also happy working with the great American playwrights having previously staged Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams in New York and now brings Arthur Miller to London. The influence of the director is clear from the moment the audience enters; Van Hove has used the flexibility of the Young Vic’s auditorium to physically conceal the entire set within a black box. Indeed the raising and eventual sealing of the stage suggests a symbolic entombing of the story and hints to its timeless nature.
The production strips away all hints of naturalism from the setting. It exists as a stark, white rectangle surrounded by a glass bench. The only prop being a wooden chair that forms the essential test of strength between Eddie and Marco; van Hove recognises its significance and frames Marco holding the chair aloft in a moment of absolute stillness. It is reminiscent of a classical sculpture and is one of a number of markers that draw out the links to Greek tragedy that Miller hinted at within the text.
The lack of a setting inevitably directs greater attention towards the actors, and they are uniformly excellent. Van Hove has drawn highly stylised performances out of his cast without losing the grounding in naturalism that is essential for demonstrating the characters’ humanity and for capturing the emotionally draining tragedy that lurks in the background throughout.
There is an expressionistic quality to the performances that adds a strand of universalism to the highly specific nature of the plot. Whilst the story of Italian migrants and working-class longshoremen places it within a time and place, this production leaves the audience in no doubt that the deeper themes are those that have always been with us.
It is anchored by a performance of exceptional power by Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone. He brings a natural physicality to the role that tells a story of sinewy strength rather than bullish power; the famous description of ‘eyes like tunnels’ is entirely apt for his Eddie, this is no knuckle-headed docker, but a man of complexity and internal conflict. We sense that behind those eyes is a torrent of raging emotions that he is intelligent enough to recognise but too inarticulate to express.
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