The Crucible is a notoriously hard play to put on. The need to maintain fear, hysteria and tension in mundane settings relies heavily of quality of actors – quite a lot to ask even for the talents of the Oxford drama scene. To add to this, the Christ Church Dramatic Society have decided to stage the first student play to be put on in the grand surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre. But, the risk pays off in this quietly powerful adaptation of one of the greatest plays of the Twentieth Century.
Put on a week after the 10th anniversary of Arthur Miller’s death, this performance has a ceremonial feel; this is substantiated by its placement in the place known most to students for the celebrations of graduation and the hangover of matriculation. The play, for those unfamiliar, follows the descent into the Salem Witch Trials where hysteria and religious fundamentalism lead to the condemnation and death of many people. Miller used it to allegorise McCarthyism in the 1950s, but it could just as easily stand an allegory to the power that fear and religion play in our lives today.
Yet, in a performance that could quite easily descend into hysteria, Lily Slater’s adaptation maintains a quietly menacing feel. This is substantiated by the transitions between scenes accompanied by the ‘a capella’ singing of the cast. When each act ends as dramatically as it does in The Crucible, the sudden switch to the hauntingly beautiful voices of the actors offers is striking. It does not offer a sense of calm, however, but one of disquiet.
The restrained power of the play is best exemplified in the Second Act mundane dinner scene between John and Elizabeth Proctor. I have seen many adaptations of this scene but none as well executed as this one. Thomas Curzon and Rosalind Brody present marvellous breadth and depth in their acting allowing the scene both to be interspersed with the unspoken pain of adultery and the underlying love that drives their movements. Both actors prove their talent throughout with Curzon’s physical embodiment of the tragically tortured anti-hero John Proctor from both his physical intimidation to the infamous harrowing scream of “Because it is my name!” Brody, similarly presents both the piety and strength of Elizabeth Proctor leading to very few dry eyes as her and John say their final goodbye.
Whilst these performances do steal the show, they are accompanied by a strong supporting cast. Markian Mysko von Schultze’s conflicted Hale and Jacob Mercer’s pathetic Parris stand out. However, the play dipped at points due to the young girls who steered away from menacing power and towards shrillness.
The innovative use of the Sheldonian Theatre was most effective in the manipulation of its court-like atmosphere. The cast sat upon benches at the back as if an ever-present jury looks down upon proceedings. There were some opening night problems with people struggling to see and the acoustics meaning that some of the actors could not be heard. I expected, given the space and the Old Vic adaptation, the play to be in the round. But instead the audience was arranged in a right angle meaning that some of the blocking was clunky.
However, the image of John Proctor wondering barefoot of out the doors of the Sheldonian towards the Bodleian makes these feel insignificant. It is one that lingers long after both the hysterical shouting and haunting vocals end. This is definitely an adaptation faithful to the splendour of the play.