Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Crucible @ Royal Exchange Theatre

by Hope Hopkinson

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" (John Proctor, The Crucible)

On one Friday evening at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, each member of the 600-strong audience witnessing Caroline Steinbeis' reworking of Arthur Miller's 1953 classic, hung to these poignant words, amidst an array of theatrics that contributed to the three-hour epic.

In its literal sense a tale inspired by the accusations involved in the Salem witch trials of 1960, Miller originally crafted The Crucible in such a way that his contemporaries could see it serve as an allegory of McCarthyism, more obliquely referencing the blacklisting by the U.S. government of accused communists. Whilst there was nothing to explicitly suggest this link in the framework of the play itself, they were so clear that even apologists for McCarthyism could see them. Right-wing critic Robert Warshaw questioned after seeing The Crucible's premiere production, "How can Mr. Miller be held responsible for what comes into my head while I watch his play?" This suggests that Warshaw and his familiars looked to find Miller guilty of igniting seditious ideals within them, however due to the lack of substantial literary reference he could not be held accountable. Aptly, just three years after the publication of the play, Miller had ingeniously escaped conviction of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others present at meetings he had attended. This parallel was coincidentally conveyed in the Royal Exchange Theatre itself, a renovation of a  former marketplace for the trading of cotton and textiles in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries with a classical style of architecture; however the actual stage and seating itself in an incredibly modern looking 'module' in the centre. It in this way suitably referenced both Miller's contemporary and historical conceptual interpretations.

Although both referenced interpretations are still of some interest in today's culture, it could not go unnoticed as to how similar ideals resonated in the forefront of current affairs closer to home. The way in which authoritative figures in the play are quick to dismiss and convict those who dare to stray from widespread puritanical views has been seen in admittedly a much lesser form upon the rise of Jeremy Corbyn into Labour Leadership. His ideals so 'un-New Labour', disagreeing members of the party have displayed an unseemly hysteria, many members of importance resigning due to indifference. This has recently been seen in Lord Anthony Grabiner relinquishing his position due to having "nothing in common" with Corbyn's socialist policies. However, in the defence of Mr Corbyn, this retraction could feasibly seen as an endorsement due to Grabiner's association with Rupert Murdoch's News International and Goldman Sachs. More poignantly however, Miller's themes displayed in The Crucible have a closer parallel with the increasingly incorrect stereotyping of those of Muslim faith. For example, British-born Muslims too often find themselves labelled as terrorists by association as an out-of-proportion stretch derived from extremist groups abiding to the belief. Worryingly so, mainstream political discourse has connoted the term immigrant with such negative associations, despite the fact that our very society is defined by immigration; the influence of Romans and Saxons to name but two.

It could be interpreted that director Steinbeis paid reference to these modern issues of marginalisation through costume choice; half the cast clothed in garments contemporary to the Salem Witch Hunts and the other in outfits that wouldn't seem out of place in today's society. Whilst a distracting directorial choice at times (Reverend John Hale's entrance misinterpreted as a late audience member!), coming away from the production it begs audience members to dwell upon just how similar situations are very much held in the public eye.

So as to come to a conclusion of sorts, this performance of perhaps Miller's most controversial piece certainly begged many a question, which could be summarised into Reverend Hale's rhetoric, "Is every defence an attack upon the court?" The powerful dramatics played a crucial role in elevating these concepts, most prominently that of Rachel Redford's manifestation of Abigail Williams (unmistakably influenced by Winona Ryder's interpretation of the character in the 1996 cinematic adaptation), and arguably more so in Jonjo O'Neill's portrayal of John Proctor, captivating all with his emotive pleas. This, and the culminating theoretical flooding of the stage made for a production that could not be described as something other than enrapturing, and if it's run at the Royal Exchange were not to have come to an end the day after I had the pleasure of seeing it, nor were it a five hour trek up North, I would unhesitatingly recommend it. 

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