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The Crucible Review

The Crucible This is quite simply a magnificent production of a magnificent play and not to be missed. Throughout its 3.5 hours playing time it gripped one of the most diverse audiences I've seen in a West End theatre. People of all ages from school students to seniors sat in rapt attention as the tension ratcheted up and we were forced to consider our own potential to stand up to injustice.

It's actually a well known and often revived piece but that never seems to dull its edge - the true sign of a masterpiece. I've seen it numerous times and even appeared in a college production but even I was amazed at how fresh it seemed. With every decade that passes it seems to take on new relevance for it concerns that deadliest and most ubiquitous of social ills, the witch hunt.

In this case the term is specific; the action centres around a claustrophobic village of early American settlers for whom a cruel and puritanical version of Christianity provides thin comfort and moral misguidance. It is the interest of the local priest, insecure in his authority, to believe the local young women have been worshipping the devil. He calls in “experts” all too willing to back up his beliefs to further their own importance and soon the whole community is pointing the finger at their neighbour to save their own skin and settle grudges. As terror grips it creates its own group hysteria and it’s a brave man who’ll say enough is enough. The man in this case it’s the taciturn farmer John Proctor, himself haunted with guilt about an adulterous affair with one of the girls. However it’s considerably more nuanced than that as it was conceived by the playwright Arthur Miller as a metaphor for the impossible position his fellow artists found themselves in through the 1950s when a committee was set up to identify and destroy American communist sympathisers. Proctor like many of the Hollywood and Broadway figures Miller knew is forced to decide between saving his skin and preserving his integrity.

Every single member of this large company turns in a memorable performance, no matter how small the role.

It’s a very fine piece of writing that almost always strikes a chord no matter how badly it’s performed and directed but on this occasion it’s performed and staged by director Yael Farber very well.

The often cavernous Old Vic Theatre has been reconfigured so that the audience now sit surrounding the action rather than in front of it. This creates a much more focused, intimate playing space allowing for greater nuance than is usually possible.

There is virtually no set, just a space with a few sticks of furniture to delineate location, seemingly wrapped in the dank, dark fog of rural Massachusetts in 1692... and the acting.

The glory of this particular production is that every single member of this large company turns in a memorable performance, no matter how small the role. Harry Atwell and Rebecca Saire are mesmerising as the Putnams, the very epitome of small town, narrow minded hatred yet rooted in the profound tragedy of their children’s death, William Gaunt and Ann Firbank are magnificent as the community elders too wise and stubborn to easily give in to the insanity around them, Jack Ellis is loathsome as the investigating magistrate drowning out any dissent with bluster and dramatics, Adrian Schiller is heart wrenching as a good man forced to confront his own prejudices when everything he believes crumbles around him, Anna Madeley excels in the difficult role of the wronged and icy farmers wife and Samantha Colley is terrifying as a young girl intoxicated with her new found power and sexuality. But best of all there is Richard Armitage as John Proctor.

I don’t expect to see a finer performance this year.

Proctor is a star part that requires a exceptionally powerful leading man. From the moment Armitage looms out of the twilight, tall and craggily handsome, tortured and blunt, wary but calculating it’s as if a force of nature has been released on to the stage. You can almost smell the soil under his fingernails; he exudes a brooding sexuality that is all about graft, sweat and emotional suppression. His encounters with his wife are heart-rending in their disconnection, his scenes with his young, sometime mistress crackle with a fearsome erotic charge. As the do-gooders set out to break his spirit and destroy his reputation you can see the shards of agony etched into his every feature.

I don’t expect to see a finer performance this year.

The Crucible tickets