Given the impressive treatment given to the American classics here in recent years (Death of a Salesman, Of Mice and Men etc.), it's easy to expect greatness every time. Fortunately, The Crucible continues this trend.
This is theatre at its best, uniting great material with a superb creative team to offer up a wholly satisfying and emotionally involving experience.
The story is based around actually events which took place in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s, a mere 70 after the pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower. This was a ‘God fearing' time, to say the least, with Church and State very much entwined and religion dominating every aspect of life. So when a group of teenage girls is seen frolicking in the woods and one of them is later struck down with a strange ‘illness', the hand of the devil is suspected. This sparks a wave of fear and persecution as the town's ‘good, Christian' women are rounded up one-by-one and put on trial, suspected of witchcraft.
In the middle of all this we have John Proctor (Martin Marquez), a largely good but also flawed man (a quintessential Miller character) who is wrapped in guilt and shame over his dalliance with one of the young girls, Abigail (Kate Phillips). When Proctor's wife is suspected of sympathy for the devil, he is forced to face up to his ‘lechery' in a very public way.
While Miller's tale is set in the 1690s, the fact it was written more than 250 years later in the 1950s roots it firmly in the milieu of the Communist ‘witch-hunts', a period of US history during which Senator Joseph McCarthy went on a fear-spreading crusade to root out ‘reds'. However, as director (and the Playhouse's artistic director), James Brining, has said, this is a true classic in the sense that it still has relevance today, as the ‘either you're with us or against us' mentality remains evident; the ‘war or terror' being the obvious example.
But aside from all that, The Crucible remains simply a gripping piece of drama, and the creative team do it great justice. The cast is uniformly terrific, making it hard (and a little unfair) to single out any one of the actors.
That being said, the performances which linger longest in the memory come courtesy of Marquez, who powerfully portrays Proctor's inner struggles, and Joseph Mydell as the fearful, righteous Danforth, who presides over the ‘trials' and sends innocent women off to the gallows all the name of ‘justice'. Elsewhere, Daniel Poyser is wonderful as Reverend John Hale, who arrives in town to try and make sense of all the strange goings-on, and Steven Beard adds both humour and colour as old Giles Corey. As Abigail, Phillips, strikes the right balance between seductress and emotionally scarred young woman.
As might be expected, the list of negatives here is pretty thin, but there are a few modern touches (plastic chairs and a plugged in microphone!) that stand out like a sore thumb and serve to detract a little from the 17th century setting, which is otherwise excellently recreated by designer, Colin Richmond.
Overall, while the Playhouse is known for taking risks with the productions it stages, it's always a treat to see one of the classics given new life on the Leeds' stage and The Crucible can certainly be counted among the best.
In short, you'll be sure to fall under its spell!
The Crucible continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 25 October 2014.