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Review Round-up: Critics Bewitched by Crucible?

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Critics enjoyed fine weather for their first visit of the year to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park this week, to see artistic director Timothy Sheader's season-opening revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Set in 1692 in Massachusetts, the play centres on the reign of terror unleashed during the Salem witchcraft trials - Miller famously wrote it as a thinly veiled response to the 20th-century "anti-American" communist witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The cast includes Emily Taaffe (Abigail Williams), Patrick O'Kane (John Proctor), Emma Cunniffe (Elizabeth Proctor), Oliver Ford Davies (Deputy-Governor Danforth), Lucy May Barker (Mercy Lewis) Patrick Godfrey (Giles Corey), Susan Engel (Rebecca Nurse) and Christopher Fulford (Reverend Parris).

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Timothy Sheader has not directed the play as a musical, exactly, but his staging is certainly epic, from the minute we hear the singing of girls in long skirts and Puritan bonnets coming through the tall trees and taking up their choric posts at the side of a flat wooden stage, a horizontal house front… Young Abigail Williams, spiritedly played by Emily Taaffe, leads a dissembling dance around the catatonic figure of a ten-year-old, the daughter of the Reverend Parris (Christopher Fulford), new to the community and trying to turn the tide of mounting hysteria and righteousness… the play is ostensibly about the Salem witch trials of 1692… it grips like a vice in its study of moral panic, galloping gossip and the terrible consequences when individuals are blown on the wind of high-minded interference.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “His most innovative stroke is to deploy a chorus of village girls who sit either side of Jon Bausor's rectangular wooden platform and point accusatory fingers at Salem's supposed diabolists: the only problem is that when the girls take centre-stage and march in unison, they look like an over-drilled ensemble rather than a rabble of teenagers in a self-induced trance… Patrick O'Kane's Proctor, finally undone by his past association with Abigail, is suitably tormented and guilt-racked, and Emma Cunniffe brings out the puritanical coldness beneath his wife's charity. Oliver Ford Davies, valuing every syllable, also emphasises the stern self-righteousness of Deputy Governor Danforth… and Christopher Fulford rages well as a fundamentalist cleric. Miller's play is all there, even if the large space dictates a production that is broadly effective rather than subtly nuanced.”
  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) – “Open-air theatre runs that risk: a flittering bat or the crackle of a hundred Pacamacs can destroy an audience’s focus… Could it work on a summer night? … It did. The first 'Satanism', after all, is a nocturnal dance in the woods, and around this rough-hewn wooden stage real trees press in. The white-bonneted girls who become accusers and accused sit round on real stumps, prim and silent until they explode into hysteria… Beneath the amber night skies of modern London, the fate of Salem still grips and troubles. Patrick O’Kane and Emma Cunniffe are, by the end, electrifying as the doomed Proctors, Patrick Godfrey a fine Giles Corey, the direction clear and unpretentious. But the play remains the star. It asks only an honest rendering. Here, it finds it.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “While The Crucible is essentially an indoor play, we gain something from seeing it outdoors, for as the wind shivers through the trees, the sky darkens, and the temperature drops, the supernatural aspect of Miller’s writing becomes persuasive… In Timothy Sheader’s production the long first half feels underpowered. Only when Oliver Ford Davies shows up, in the guise of the provincial deputy governor, does it become sufficiently weighty… The characters are not conceived with enough depth and O’Kane’s interpretation of Proctor’s anguish is strangulated. Although there are moments here of real punch, this is an earnest, rather slow-footed production, which, until its final scenes of demonic possession and tragic distress, doesn’t fully grip.”
  • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “Sheader also has the gaggle of girls accused of witchcraft sitting around the stage in their bonnets and aprons - starting like starlings at every twist of the plot. And when it comes to their big moment in court, they lay on an impressive formation melt-down worthy of The Exorcist. By then even the prosecuting pastor – nicely played like a bureaucrat from Brussels by Philip Cumbus – wants out. Meanwhile, Oliver Ford Davies’ hanging judge adds so much chilling gravitas that he almost steals the show even though he doesn’t appear till the second half…  But the three hour production is strong in all departments down to the harrassed court clerk struggling to keep up with the deluge of biblical confessions using only his scratchy old quill. As the night sky closes in on the verdant arena the show gains a cinematic intensity together with a chorus of Hitchcockian strings and a brooding, melodramatic finale provides an almost spiritual conclusion.”
  • - Theo Bosanquet & Andrea Kleopa


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