“Mass hysteria is a compelling spectacle. So is the supernatural. Consequently, everyone losing their shit over some alleged witchy stuff makes for one fucking watchable play.” Thus wrote Arthur Miller in 1996 on the release of the film adaptation of his 1953 play, The Crucible. Okay, I’m paraphrasing (only slightly, honest) but the point is still pertinent; Miller’s dramatisation of the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s deals with the eternally fascinating machinations of a community convulsing with fear.
St Hilda’s Drama Society is staging the play in the college’s Jacqueline Du Pré Auditorium in 7th Week. David Meijers stars as John Proctor, a married man whose brief affair with young Abigail Williams (Mary Higgins) has triggered escalating hostility between himself, his erstwhile concubine, and his wife Elizabeth (Alice Gray). Accusations of witchcraft soon begin to fly and Proctor is caught in the throes of a dilemma: to protect his wife or his name?
With its rare combination of genuine drama and timeless relevance, The Crucible is regularly labelled a masterpiece of 20th Century American writing. Yet it was not always so. The original 1953 Broadway production was criticised for being ‘too conscious’ of its pretensions to social commentary.
This was the era of McCarthyism and widespread fear of closet communists lurking under the mattresses of the nation. Miller himself was hauled in front of the Committee on Un-American Activities and convicted of contempt of Congress for his refusal to co-operate. The parallel Miller drew between the literal witch-hunts of the late 17th Century and the metaphorical ones of the early 1950s certainly no secret.
Since then, productions of the play have been seen as oblique commentaries child sex-abuse scandals in California in the late eighties, on President Bush’s ‘war’ on terrorism (a 2011 production even adorned the set with a paraphrase of Georgie-boy’s notorious ultimatum: ‘either you are with us, or you are terrorists’), even – goodness gracious! – on the media furore surrounding the recent revelations about the late Jimmy Savile’s sexual proclivities.
In fact, rare is the production that does not attempt to obliquely reflect some contemporary phenomenon. So what social comments does director Helgi Clayton McClure hope to smuggle into this production? A sly statement about the shameful persecution of Geography students, perhaps?
“I don’t really want to get into that side of things”, he tells me as we discuss the play post-rehearsals. “I want to make it historically authentic. I don’t want to over-emphasise the contemporary relevance. People will either get that or they won’t, but I want them to enjoy the play in its own context.”
I’m handed a booklet about the upcoming production that says as much: “As it the case with much dramatic work, it is ultimately down to individual interpretation what aspects of the human condition are most sharply thrown into relief.” Evidently McClure and his cast are focussing on producing an engaging piece of drama and intend to leave the audience to draw their own conclusions.
The rehearsals I witness reveal more. There is an evident attention to authenticity above all else: somewhat convincing New England accents, an era-appropriate uprightness, and frequent displays of piety that only occasionally veer towards Gospel choir (“Praise the Lord!”, indeed).
Pressure is far from palpable in the scenes but there is a definite modicum of tension, particularly evident in Meijers’ performance. Beneath his indecision and uncertainty, there is an endearing earnestness that makes his plight all the more distressing. I ask Meijers how he considers Proctor: is he playing a hero?
“I think he is a very nuanced character. There is a scene early on in the first act where Proctor tells Abigail that their affair is over, but he is simultaneously being quite challenging and flirtatious. To me he is a good man with a bad side.”
McClure agrees: “I want to see Proctor as a hero but he just isn’t as simple as that. He has that fatal flaw that makes him such an controversial figure. But that’s one of the brilliant things about the play. Because it tries to portray the breadth of a community in under twenty characters, it has so many interesting characters.”
I ask McCure about the play’s aesthetics. Is he keen to embrace authenticity here as well?
“We’re trying to keep things very simple. I want to echo the play’s puritanical theme so the set is just a table and chairs, and the cast are dressed in monochrome. Everyone wears exaggeratedly frumpy outfits apart from Abigail, our femme fatale, who has a sexier, burgundy dress. Proctor will also have some symbolic red on him, a neckerchief maybe.”
McClure clearly has a powerful vision for his production and the enthusiasm to pull it off. He talks with conviction about the journey it has taken.
“I found a paperback copy of the play being given away in a box of books on someone’s front lawn. I read it on a train and it was as simple as that. I was really attracted to the nuances of the characters and, as St. Hilda’s nearly always puts on a comedy in Michaelmas term, I thought it would be bold to do something that is decidedly not.”