Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Crucible

What: The Crucible dir. YaĆ«l Farber (Old Vic, London; 21st June – 13th Sept)

When: Saturday 21st June (first night of previews – keen)

Where: Old Vic, London

Why: A walk down repressed-teenage-sexuality lane; PWC’s £12 under-25 offer

How: Eating smuggled churros from the nearby Wahaca and being told to take my feet off the ‘furniture’

In the heady days of 2006-2009, accurate historical documentary Robin Hood aired on the BBC. Featuring key talent such as Lily Allen’s dad, and that guy who would go on to play a drug-dealing kidnapper in Happy Valley, the show’s popularity grew amongst my fellow medieval enthusiasts, in part thanks to the psychologically compelling portrayal of arch-villain and wooer of Maid Marion, Sir Guy of Gisborne. This naturalistic and considered interpretation won the hearts of many for its subtle poignancy and understated delivery. LOL JK HE LOOKED WELL FIT WITH HIS SHIRT OFF!

Guyliner ahoy

As you can see, my quest to eradicate objectification from all aspects of my life has taken a bit of a nosedive; I blame the heat, the athletic specimens of Brazil 2014, and my monthly cycle. My theatre companion for the evening and I came across an advert last week for Richard Armitage’s star turn in The Crucible, and immediately went home and booked tickets for opening night. Judge us not, for sublimation of teenage lust[1] will help us move forward as adults into a world free of frustrated fantasies of dungeons, leather and riding whips. (ALL IN A PURELY HISTORICAL CONTEXT.)

Another confession: I’ve never encountered The Crucible. Despite being a mainstay of many English and Drama GCSEs for many a year (until that beastly Gove gets his hands on it, AM I RIGHT?), until tonight I had never read it, or seen it staged. I’ve been missing out. It was a flippin’ blinder. As it was the first night of previews, I wondered at the level of quality we’d be receiving. Apart from a few transition moments that could have been sped up, it was a flawless production: five stars all round. An intimate staging in the round, with forceful performances from almost all the cast.

Richard Armitage’s John Proctor was a delicate and complex husband. It is to his credit that the role did not overwhelm the production; it was by no means a one-man show, a chance to psychologically monologue. His performance was truly as part of a strong ensemble, appropriate for a play about the claustrophobic, meddling intimacy of a medium-sized seventeenth-century community. The shame and self-loathing that wears him down was concealed by a stoic visage and sturdy stance, until the play’s final scenes, where his emotional and spiritual frailty overflows to curve his spine and hunch his previously brooding frame. He is a man whose single adulterous act has destroyed not just his marriage, but his entire life, and the life of his community, and he bears that burden with no self-pity and no self-forgiveness. His love for his wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) and for his boys is not enough, ultimately, to spare him from his self-sacrifice at the end of a rope. The production should be applauded for the restrained and rejected sexuality between Proctor and Abigail (Samantha Colley), a painful flame that has long since singed and burnt out, and instead for its focus on the clear emotional and physical desire that John still holds for Elizabeth: their final kiss, on the brink of death, is one of the most powerful stage snogs I have seen. It’s the kind of kiss where you forget anyone else exists around you, because you just want to pour your soul into that other person’s mouth so for that one moment, they can taste your tears and your fears and the sensation rising in your chest. Their marriage may have turned cold, and been blighted by resentment on both parts, but in their final interaction, you can see why baby number four is on the way. Madeley’s Elizabeth was consummately portrayed: what seems like a shrugging Christian acceptance is instead a passionate belief in doing what you believe to be right. Although she wants her husband to live, she knows he dies following his faith in the angel Raphael’s call to the boy Tobias: ‘Do that which is good and no harm shall come to thee.’ Her final words, and the closing lines of the play, left her with tears in her eyes that continued to the curtain call: ‘He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him.’

It is striking in our ‘post-Christian’ society to feel how much God comes into the play; or, more aptly, how the manipulation of ‘God’ by the folk of Salem has the ability to give and to take away. Adrian Schiller and Jack Ellis enacted this double-sided religiosity with similar sensitivity, as the new-comer Revered Hale and Deputy Governor Danforth, whose Puritanical hat immediately screamed out WITCHFINDER GENERAL for the uninitiated. 

Ironically, he has a rabbit under there.

The world of hellfire and brimstone makes a screeching comeback for the people of Massachusetts, gold candlesticks and flying familiars threatening a simplistic, black-cloth and meeting hall everyday faith. The hysteria of superstition conjured up by ‘the children’ was terrifying played in the round on the darkened, hazy stage of the Old Vic. Orgasmic and epileptic convulsions, contorted yogic bodies and Bacchanal chanting overwhelmed the space, relaying the power these ‘children’ – sexualised young women, led by a manipulative and jealous chief – have over the townsfolk scared to – or glad not to – deny their pretences. Colley’s Abigail Williams is a phenomenal presence in every scene she appears in. Her professional debut, straight out of the Oxford School of Drama, I hope she will be a London stage regular for a long time to come. Like a manic Audrey Tautou in French stalker flick He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not,[1] nimble and flighty but deadly, she leapt around the stage with a crazed energy, a Dora-like sexuality that would’ve had old Sigmund scribbling down a line or two. I wouldn’t want to meet her down a dark alleyway, or have had her in my form at school. Nevertheless, the production, though recognizing the severe distemper that lays inside of this motherless, fatherless being, acknowledges that it takes two to tango, and two to lie down ‘where [the] beasts are bedded’. There is an animalism that takes hold of her, potentially brought on by taking her knickers off in cow pat. If this play does not blame John for the escalation of events, it doesn’t quite blame Abigail either. She’s a mad bitch, but unhinged, and possibly taken advantage of. I wondered if the production was perhaps nodding slightly in an Operation Yewtree direction, with the nubile yet infantile girls and the difficulties of the accuser/accused dynamic, but that throws up some problematic questions about the ultimate veracity of the Crucible girls’ bandwagon-jumping.

His wife's a witch, his wife's a witch not

The play was a good four hours with interval, and I expect this will shorten a fair amount as the show leaves previews. Nothing, however, felt unnecessary, and the tightness of the cast and the tense lack of catharsis throughout had me literally on the edge of my seat.[2] I cannot wait to see this production for a second time when it’s in full stride, but for a first performance, this was exceptional, and thoroughly deserved the standing ovation it received. I’m usually too British and sardonic for anything as sincere as an ovation, but I couldn’t help but join in.[3]

[1] A la folie... pas du tout (2002)
[2] We had cheap high-chair seats at the side of the stage; my feet couldn’t reach the floor.
[3] A little hop off the stool.