Astonishing And Heartbreaking: The Crucible At The Old Vic

Richard Armitage stars in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

What happens when Yaël Farber and Richard Armitage take on The Crucible? They produce a deeply revealing comment on contemporary conflict and our own inadequacies, says Laura Brown…

A few hours before The Crucible began at The Old Vic, we were crossing the Golden Jubilee Bridge when a two year old in front of us refused to go any further. With nothing but the Thames on one side and rail tracks on the other, her parents could do nothing but lift her rigid body from the ground where she’d supplanted herself. She continued to scream, full throated, red-faced and spitty, as they carried her away. Children have always known that sometimes when you need attention, the louder you are, the more likely it is going to be forthcoming.

At just over three hours long, The Crucible at The Old Vic is a rumination on relying on a screaming, hysterical voice instead of sense; why when good men do nothing — and those in power rely on religious fundamentalism to make their decisions — society loses its foundation.

The Crucible is a tricky text, purely because it is so familiar to the many who study it. The allegory of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century as a critique of McCarthy’s House of Un-American Acivities can sometimes be hamfisted in the wrong hands (no irony intended). Yet here, what Yaël Farber as Director has created must surely be the definitive representation of Arthur Miller’s text. Dark, brooding and oppressive, but with space to breathe and reflect, it is a profoundly unsettling production that plays not just on the mind but the soul.

“Wait until you have to unfurl your knuckles at the interval; it’s not so much a natural break in proceedings but a chance to exhale”

The South African director offers no diktat for an interpretation for her Crucible. It is hard, however, not to reflect on religious fundamentalism now, on modern folly and ignorance: allowing a British teen who has fled the UK for Syria and Isis to define the image of British Muslims; allowing a prism of fundamentalist Christianity to be the voice we listen to when we want insight into equal marriage, women’s rights or FGM. Of religion used as a defence for war and a bedrock of fear. We allow hysteria and stupidity to have a louder voice and more control when what we should have is reflection, perspective and thought. In our often youth-dominated and mediated culture we need more John Proctors and Rebecca Nurses rather than Abigail Williams’.

Performed in the round, this is a Crucible that leaves you wrought. Richard Hammarton’s score echoes almost a chanting, a sense of impending dread. The set by Soutra Gilmour along with Tim Lutkin’s lighting glimpses a gloomy world where there needs to be more enlightenment. Here in the round, we do not feel complicit; yet with greying drapes covering the faded grandeur of The Old Vic, the shards of light from basement doorways and the deep, dark, mustiness of it all, you feel as though you are eavesdropping, watching people trapped with no escape. The only noise the audience makes is the odd guffaw (The Crucible is always surprisingly wry), gasp and applause.The air fills with smoke when we reach the farmhouse, and ash rains from the sky in the prison. Wait until you have to unfurl your knuckles at the interval; it’s not so much a natural break in proceedings but a chance to exhale.

As for the cast, it is they who wring every last drop from the round itself. Samantha Colley’s Abigail is piercingly dead-eyed, buoyed by her power as a namer of witches, a school-ground bully inspiring terror (the scene as she leads the children into convulsions is utterly, utterly petrifying). Jack Ellis as Deputy Governor Danforth is terrifying in his absolute and unyielding position — with a hint of daddy-complex. Anna Madeley is beautiful and graceful as Elizabeth Proctor; it’s hard to bring heart to someone often defined as a kind of Saint, but she offers an assurance that makes her closing scenes both satisfying and heartbreaking.

“Richard Armitage’s John Proctor is a confused man, almost a modern humanist surrounded by religious fanatics; a man troubled by his own doubts as he is afraid”

At the centre of it all is the human brooder himself, Richard Armitage (he of Hollywood blockbuster and theatre fame). His height means he looms over the rest of the cast. If he wished, he could almost crush them in his hands. His John Proctor is a confused man, almost a modern humanist surrounded by religious fanatics; a man troubled by his own doubts as he is afraid. He is roaring in his rage, fragile in his tears. It’s an astonishing performance. It feels so real I don’t know how you could turn this John Proctor on and off like a tap.

And what are you left with in the end, except for a slightly sore bum as you’ve sat, rigid and frozen, in the climactic closing act? Injustice happens when those in power cease to be good men and when those with a conscience fail to speak up and be counted, no matter the consequence. As John Proctor almost wails for someone else to decide what he should do, to want independence but also to be instructed, we ruminate on our own fear of speaking up, of our own inadequacy at staring down those waging wars, imprisoning innocence, labelling ‘difference’ a crime or using bigotry as a tool for power.

Too easily do we wait for others to speak first, dismiss our experience as we grow older, and instead let a younger and small-minded perspective shout the loudest. Sometimes, we simply fail to shout: “Stop!” If we are to define what we want our little villages to look like, then vengeance, stupidity and ignorance should not be allowed to dominate. Instead of letting hysterical children dictate, we should turn to those with a bit more experience.

In the hands of this director and cast, Miller’s 60-year-old play has never felt so fresh.

Laura Brown

Main image: Richard Armitage as John Proctor. Image courtesy The Old Vic

The Crucible runs at The Old Vic, London until Saturday 13 September 2014 – £10, £16, £21, £30, £45, £55

For more info, tickets and booking see

Posted on 05/08/2014 by thedoublenegative