first night

The Crucible

Ben Weaver-Hincks visits Hild Bede for a witch hunt.

Caedmon Hall is a difficult venue to utilise dramatically, and never has this been more the case than with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. A long, intense and thought-provoking take on Salem’s witch trials, the play also acts as an allegory for America’s response to communism in the 1950s. It demands a lot from its cast, even more from its director and production team, and a good deal of concentration from its audience. There are a lot of directions this play could take, and its current one hints at real skill and imagination, without ever quite reaching the heights it promises.

A number of directorial decisions show that despite Rachel Nwokoro’s allusion to McCarthyism in the program, this production focuses firmly on the primary material. This Sleepy-Hollow-esque atmosphere is a thoughtful way to get around the awkwardness of the venue, and makes the performance instantly compelling. Exaggerated lighting effects, and the imaginative use of sound and music suggest that the witchcraft, whether or not it is real, exists at least in the minds of Abigail Williams and the other girls. It is an interesting psychological take on the play, but one that can be quite limiting. For instance, though the cast seem adept at creating the hysteria that the play clearly demands, the quieter moments sometimes fail to suggest the true insidiousness of the accusatory atmosphere. Sometimes more could be done with less. Likewise, the play has its moments of the absurd, and awkward comedy can sometimes ensue. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, but one of the hazards of performing the play at such a high pitch of hysteria is that these moments reach a level of bathos that is somewhat risible.
By far the greatest success of the play directorially speaking was the use of the stage. Beginning in the audience, the action moves gradually backwards, onto the front of the stage, and finally further back. Not only does this make potentially problematic scene changes absolutely seamless, but it creates a distancing effect as the atmosphere of Salem becomes increasingly alienating. It’s a clever move, and one that pays off, as it forces the audience figuratively – and almost literally – to shift forwards in their seats.
Despite the hall, the atmosphere is conjured admirably. Leaves on the floor, ethereal plainsong coming from the wings, and the beat of a single drum are all more than mere decorative touches. Lighting helps with this, casting a dim glow over the set in most scenes, with use of rich reds and blues when they are demanded. Some lighting changes are unnecessarily sudden, however, and I’d question the need for such obvious colours at moments of dramatic intensity.
It is, as usual, highly impressive that HBT has managed to form such a large cast of in-college actors. However, as in many college productions, the standard of the acting varies, actors are sometimes cast in some
unlikely roles, and consequently performances often fail to find a consistent tone. William Rhodes has the presence and moral ambiguity for John Proctor, and his final scene is strong, but his early performance lacks nuance and his anger can tend towards the anaemic. He is not the only one; most cast members, though displaying moments of brilliance, have their slips and tend to resort to eyebrow-acting when emotions are running high. Perhaps this was a first night problem, or perhaps it simply represents the scale of the challenge the play poses. Again, I’m inclined to put a good deal of the blame with the sheer size of the hall, as the actors have to rely on volume and exaggerated gesture in order to raise the temperature demanded by the play’s title. In a smaller space, they could, I expect, have found more controlled means of doing this.
Nevertheless there are some highly skilled performances, including from amongst the play’s more minor characters. Lily Morgan’s Tituba, Joe Skelton’s Ezekiel Cheever and Sophia Sharp’s Elizabeth Proctor are all noticeably comfortable in their parts. As an ensemble last night, the cast really found their feet in the courtroom scene, where performances began to take off, leading the play to a convincing and satisfying conclusion – it is just a shame this had not happened two acts previously.
HBT’s production is a competent and, at times, imaginative take on Miller’s play. Tension is maintained, and the story is told, but it rarely goes much further than this. Nevertheless, the mere act of keeping the audience in their seats for the best part of three hours demonstrates that this production succeeded at sucking many of last night’s theatregoers into the disturbing world of seventeenth-century Salem. Let’s hope they find their way back.

Ben Weaver-Hincks

23 November 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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