The Crucible is a 1953 play by American playwright Arthur Miller. It is a dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials which took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692/93 and an allegory of the communist witch hunts of the 1950s in which Miller was caught up.
Many people who’ve done A level English will be familiar with the plot. In a tight knit community, a group of girls is caught dancing wildly in the woods. Allegations of witchcraft ensue. Lust, superstition and personal grievances collide and the whole village is quickly consumed by an unstoppable flow of fear, paranoia and manipulation with no-one safe from their neighbour and the noose.
Leading the accusers is Abigail Williams (Lucy Keirl), who is driven by her desire for John Proctor, with whom she has had an affair, and who now wants to kill his wife.
The play is a perfect allegory of the McCarthyite witch hunts. Those who were accused of communist sympathies were put on trial and expected to divulge the names of other communist sympathizers. Failure to do so led to punishment.
In The Crucible, those who are accused are put on trial, expected to confess and accuse others of being witches. Failure to do so leads to death.
The greatest tragedy and irony of the play is that those who confess are innocent. Their confessions are lies.
There are some solid performances from the cast which features Coronation Street’s Charlie Condou as Reverend Hale, who arrives to diagnose devil worship and witchcraft, and is unnervingly calm in the face of an increasingly agitated Proctor – powerfully played by Eoin Slattery – who is aware it is all nonsense.
Proctor’s wife Elizabeth is played with impressive stoicism by Victoria Yeates. And there’s a standout performance by Jonathan Tafler as the pompous and bombastic Judge Danforth who, significantly, wears modern costume.
There are some nice touches, too. The silhouette effects are particularly effective and would have been perfect for the opening dancing scene. And Anouk Schiltz’s austere set design is outlined with wooden boards and tree trunks, a reminder of the innocent people who will hang.
But is the play really as pertinent today, as Douglas Rintoul, the director of this production, claims? So-called political debate these days is littered with accusations of racism and fascism, and mass hysteria has led to the careers of innocent people being ruined by accusations of crimes they haven’t committed.
But are there really parallels to be drawn between the Salem witch trials, Trump’s America and post-Brexit UK? And if so, who are the witches?
The Crucible is a powerful and intense play which raises many issues about religion, power, truth, mass hysteria and human nature.
Unfortunately, I struggled to hear some of the actors in the first act. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I was sitting next to a man who munched his way through a couple of bags of Hula Hoops, or whatever delicacies they sell in the foyer, during the performance.
Eating and drinking in the auditorium might be OK if you’re watching something light-hearted like a juke box musical, but isn’t it time it was banned for serious plays like this?
Manchester Opera House until 13th May 2017. Book tickets here.