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The Crucible at the National Theatre – review

Lyndsey Turner's revival stars Brendan Cowell and Erin Doherty

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Erin Doherty (Abigail) and the cast of The Crucible
© Johan Persson

Watching The Crucible in the age of Trump, when the words ‘witch-hunt' have been cried so often as to become largely meaningless, is an oddly invigorating experience. This is a witch-hunt, Don.

Lyndsey Turner's lucid production, designed by longterm collaborator Es Devlin, opens with a hosepipe ban-defying deluge of rain that curtains the stage on three sides. It's an effect that presages the unashamed melodrama of Arthur Miller's allegorical classic. The drama unfolds on a bare, slate-floored platform with an illuminated ceiling, while the depth of the Olivier is used to its full capacity, with characters regularly strolling off into the vanishing gloom.

The last major London revival of the play, which dramatises the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, was Yaël Farber's at the Old Vic in 2014, starring Richard Armitage as tortured protagonist John Proctor. Here, Brendan Cowell puts a much earthier spin on the role, showing him as a farmer with his feet firmly in the soil. You believe he could plough for hours on a Sunday. He's a burly, coiled spring of a man with the threat of violence never far from the surface. When he nearly takes a belt to young servant Mary Warren (an impressive Rachelle Diedericks, recently seen in Our Generation), we're left in no doubt that he's capable of it.

Erin Doherty makes a welcome return to the stage, having achieved stardom playing Princess Anne in The Crown, with an interpretation of Abigail, Proctor's vengeful former lover, that is skittish, frenzied and deeply malevolent. She channels the energy of a desperate fangirl, who will stop at nothing in pursuit of her idol. When she and the other girls perform their wild hallucinations, it feels genuinely frightening. One comes close to sympathising with the judges.

Brendan Cowell (John Proctor) and Rachelle Diedericks (Mary Warren)
© Johan Persson

It's wonderful to see an ensemble of this quality assembled on the Olivier stage. Karl Johnson provides many of the lighter moments with his twinkle-eyed Giles Corey; Eileen Walsh is a compellingly vulnerable Elizabeth Proctor; Fisayo Akinade shows Reverend Hale's sense of a man whose zealotry crumbles over the course of the trials; and Matthew Marsh captures Deputy Governor Danforth's growing agony as he attempts to balance the concerns of rationality and religious fervour. These are just some of many stand-outs.

Haunting a capella singing, composed by Caroline Shaw, accompanies key moments. It's another masterly touch in a production that hardly puts a foot wrong. What so impresses is the way Turner choreographs the drama so it twists like a knot; the pacing is superb. It's also visually sumptuous; the large ceiling means most of Tim Lutkin's lighting comes from the sides, so the actor's faces are defined by shadow. It's like watching a live oil painting.

One slightly unclear element is Catherine Fay's costuming. The outfits to my eye seem to range from the 17th through to 20th century – Proctor and the other farmers wear blue cloth suits – and although there is an emphasis on style over historical accuracy, the variation is a little befuddling. But then it's perhaps consistent with a production that sits intriguingly on the border between the abstract and natural; this is territory Turner knows well.

Although famously written in response to the McCarthy communist trials, in which Miller was called to testify, The Crucible now has far wider resonance, and seems as much a meditation on sin, faith and herd mentality as that unsavoury chapter of modern American history. This timely revival shows it not only as a play deserving of its status as a staple of the curriculum, but as an urgent warning of the outcome when, in Proctor's prescient words, "crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom".