On the surface, The Crucible’s plot does not appear to be relevant to our day. Arthur Miller’s drama chronicles the events of the Salem Witch Trials and is rife with terror, paranoia, and mob mentality. But, when Lyndsey Turner displays her version of Miller’s famous play for current audiences, you can’t help but notice parallels between our time and the America of 1692.
The town of Salem devolves into turmoil as charges of witchcraft are tossed around in this parable for McCarthyism. When a gang of girls becomes the accused, the destiny of a whole village is in their hands.
The infamous Abigail Williams is at the center of this affair. Milly Alcock, a West End newbie who previously played the young Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon, plays her. She controls the stage in her role. Alcock brilliantly depicts Abigail’s complexities, elevating her beyond the fickle and dumb teenager she is sometimes reduced to. Alcock is mesmerizing as she transforms from a love-sick adolescent to the uncompromising leader of a band of girls who become the harbingers of doom for their town, offering a gentleness and childish nature without shying away from her more ruthless side.
Anyone who has seen The Crucible will recognize this adolescent girl with an unlawful romance with a married man in town as the main adversary. Turner corrects the story by humanizing Abigail, transforming her from a caricature of a bitter teenager into a young lady who has been rejected.
Alcock’s dynamic portrayal does an excellent job of reminding us that Abigail is a young girl who has fallen for the charm of an older guy who does not reciprocate her sentiments. Brian Gleeson, well known for his work on Peaky Blinders and the most recent season of The Mandalorian, plays John Proctor, Admiral Hux’s father. While Proctor is not without guilt, and he should be held accountable for initiating a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old, Gleeson plays him as a wounded and proud man.
His impassioned speech near the close of the play is well-received as he remains firm in his principles, but his stand-out parts remain with Alcock’s Abigail and Elizabeth Proctor’s actress Caitlin Fitzgerald.
Gleeson and Alcock’s sequences portray the push and pull of two individuals linked by a heinous secret — one wanting to forget the humiliation and the other trying to hang on to the ghost of affection — and it forms the play’s central tension. This makes Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor’s wife, Abigail’s most significant impediment. Elizabeth Proctor, played by Fitzgerald, who you may recall from Masters of Sex or Succession when she played Tabitha Hayes, is neither the angry wife to John nor the nasty mistress to Abigail. She plays a level-headed woman entangled in the web of falsehoods spun by the town’s young girls. She is a steadfast and honest lady shorn of her sexist trappings, and the drama avoids setting the two women against each other.
On top of those three leads, Karl Johnson’s Giles Corey and Fisayo Akinade’s Reverend John Hale deserve special mention. Johnson’s portrayal of Giles provides a surprising amount of levity in the play, with his lines frequently eliciting the biggest chuckles. This simply adds to the tragedy when he is falsely accused. Similarly, Akinade, who you may know from Heartstopper, portrays an honest and honorable religious guy.
We see his confidence in the legal system gradually erode and, by the conclusion of the play, he is disillusioned. Akinade frequently feels like the compass, guiding the people towards a true north they refuse to follow, making Hale the voice of reason in a community that has lost all sense of reason.
Turner’s directing and Es Devlin’s set design create a claustrophobic and chaotic atmosphere. The Crucible looks and feels modern while retaining the essence of colonial America because of modern methods. The drama begins and finishes with a curtain of rain falling from the Gielgud Theatre stage, quickly creating the tone and throwing us into Salem headlong. The minimalist sets make use of light and shadow, and the performance makes use of music and sound.
The opening scene, indeed, roars to life with a choir of churchgoers singing hymns, setting the mood for us. At one point, during the madness, Abigail and her accusers conduct a spectacular and horrific possession performance. This tumultuous performance is one of the play’s most vital passages, offering a clear view of the town’s disintegration and how it has been trapped by paranoia and superstition.
Turner’s adaptation of Miller’s play represents our contemporary environment. It’s not difficult to draw parallels and make connections between what a modern mob may do to a person’s reputation. How many times has the internet itself conducted witch hunts against people, turning lives inside out? While not a direct connection, Turner reminds us that mob mentality has never been far from our thoughts. People with selfish motives simply need the insinuation of an allegation to break apart lives while hiding behind their extolled morality, celebrity, or religion.