Arthur Miller once said of his 1953 drama The Crucible that it starts getting produced wherever a political coup appears imminent or a dictatorial regime has just been overthrown. As paranoia and fanaticism are at the heart of the piece, it seems its popularity at any time reflects the goldfish qualities of society.
What, then, necessarily springs from all our short-term memories is the illusion that we have evolved as humans, and so the question here is: do plays stir our fevered imaginations or merely entertain our supposedly sophisticated minds? Anna Mackmin’s debut at Sheffield’s Crucible, as Michael Grandage’s associate director, seems to believe in both, and more; a sense of humour defines her touch and tests the audience as much as it does the actors.
Technical expertise is expected when dealing with five sets and 21 actors, but the white background with its silhouetted figures, and boards which bleed into a hint of the outside world is complementary to the purely artistic considerations of the play and Miller’s didactic script.
Towards the end of Act One, nothing distracts from the intensity of John Proctor’s (Douglas Henshall) pleas of innocence or his wife Elizabeth’s (Amelia Bullmore) confusion over accusations of witchcraft. All of which arises from Proctor’s infidelity, his wife’s ignorance and the question of young Abigail Williams’ (Sinéad Mathews) supposed vengeance on Proctor.
Abigail’s influence on her friends Betty Parris, Ann Putnam and Mary Warren (Bryony Hannah, Sadie Shimmin, Lyndsey Marshal) transforms their own "teenage silly season" and leads to a contagious hysteria that eventually spreads to the court that, in real life, convicted and hanged more than 72 people in Salem Massachusetts in 1692.
Parallels with the McCarthy communist witch hunts of the 1950s are famously embroidered into the fabric of this tale, and its message of how frightening a community can be when its members act out of adherence to empty forms is as powerful as ever.
Depending on how you like your entertainment, it can be disconcerting to hear the audience laugh so much at this Crucible staging of The Crucible. Mackmin throws in many dramatic pauses to encourage this effect. But do the theatregoers laugh because of perceived inconsistencies with the world today? Or because they’re easily led by suggestive direction?
The hard-working actors plough on regardless, sweat dripping from their foreheads. One can only feel for Douglas Henshall, whose exertions night after night will no doubt continue to deliver a performance that is excellent in its agony.