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The Crucible (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

'Arthur Miller's most potent play remains as relevant as ever'

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

No need to appeal to the House of Un-American Activities Committee. We have our own witch-hunts today. All those light entertainers denounced as paedophiles; all the public shamings on Twitter. Yes, at the end of his centenary year, Arthur Miller's most potent play remains as relevant as ever.

Maybe more so. Director Caroline Steinbeis pushes past the surface metaphor, which every GCSE student in the country could tell you about, and turns in a fiercely feminist staging. Forget witchcraft for a minute. What are all these old men afraid of? Young women. Female sexuality. Liberation.

It starts with five girls, each a blur of colour, sprinting through the space. They're following Sarah Amankwah's wild-eyed Tituba, out into the woods, to dance, naked, amongst themselves. That, at base, is what terrifies the town of Salem: not witches, but women. Stephen Kennedy's Revered Parris positively quakes at the prospect, scarcely able to say the word 'naked.' Salem's elders swarm around Tituba, white men choking out a black woman. It's an ugly, ugly sight; resonant and reproachful.

Salem's men wear modern dress; its women, plain pilgrims' dresses, buttoned-up and ankle-length, several centuries behind. Sam Cox's grave Giles Corey is suspicious of his wife's reading. Ann Putnam (Mary Jo Randle) needs some scapegoat for her multiple miscarriages. The spark of the whole scandal, don't forget, is John Proctor's lust for Abigail Williams (Rachel Redford).

Proctor's shame isn't in the past, nor is Abigail just an infatuated teenager. When he calls the whole hysteria "a whore's revenge," it's not a million miles from victim blaming. It takes two to tangle in the cowshed, remember. By the end, on the edge of his execution, our sympathies are well and truly split.

Salem sees its women as either witches or bewitched. To escape blame for their behaviour, the young women must first accept it, and it is only by informing on others that these girls gain any status in the court system. What kind of empowerment is that?

Steinbeis doesn't just show us the finger-pointing, contagious as it is, she shows how the establishment digs itself in. It's not enough for Ria Zmitrowicz's gawky Mary Warren to admit to lying in court. All these powerful men — deputy governors, judges, reverends -- must accept that confession and, in doing so, admit they were duped all along. Righting injustices means tarnishing reputations. This many bald, white men (seriously, is this all about hair envy?) can't be wrong.

However, the thinking isn't what makes this so forceful. It's the playing: so shrill, so fervent, so febrile. It's fingers-down-blackboard stuff. Liz Rankin's juddering movement gets under your skin. Richard Hammarton's splintered score shreds your nerves. Steinbeis changes the temperature of the room, pushing Miller's direct, no-frills dialogue to fever-pitch. Her cast aren't pretending or play-acting. They shout for real and they're bodies in space, sometimes sexy, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes livid. They stare out at us accusingly from Max Jones's scorched-earth stage — a crucible, yes, but also a bomb-site, a desert and a baptismal font.

Jonjo O'Neill brings himself up to the boil as John Proctor. Determinedly temperate to start — he sneaks Tobasco into his soup then praises his wife's seasoning -- he's pushed, squeezed and stress-tested until he erupts. Peter Guinness's ardent Deputy, Kennedy's fraught Parris and Timothy Steed's po-faced Hale, an anorak with a Whole Foods holdall, all ratchet up the pressure gage, while Rachel Redford finds some scrap of sympathy — no mean feat this -- for the deceitful Abigail Williams. Maybe it's always Miller time.

The Crucible runs at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until 24th October.