The term “witch hunt” has recently been misappropriated by the most privileged and least persecuted person in the world. According to The Nation, Donald Trump has tweeted the phrase some 294 times since becoming President (and this is not counting his retweets). At a time when the word is being so grossly misused, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a welcome reminder of the history behind it. Miller wrote the play during the anti-Communist scares of the McCarthy era, though of course it historicises this through the infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. The play explores what happens when the powerful or vindictive use the public’s irrational fears for their own ends. As the story unfolds, we learn that teenager Abigail Williams intends to accuse her lover’s wife, Elizabeth Proctor, of witchcraft in order to have her executed. But Abigail is just a single thread in a cobweb of avaricious intentions and genuine superstitions. Some of the townsmen accuse each other in order to obtain land (all accused are, of course, required to forfeit property), others- such as Anne Putnam, who has lost seven children- find themselves seeking a logic for their personal tragedies in the public hysteria. What ensues serves as a timeless indictment of fear-mongering and the quelling of dissidence.
Director Cesca Echlin’s interpretation of the play is austere, with basic black costumes, minimalist music, and a pared-down set. These are all choices made to emphasise that the Salem witch hunts took place in a time of privation and Puritanism, an era- like ours- when fanaticism fed on lean resources. The play will be showing in the Pilch, a wise selection since the intimacy of the space will heighten the claustrophobic tension the work imparts. The three main characters have been cast with insight. Abby McCann infuses Abigail with a vulnerability that matches her vindictiveness, and her angst and anger at John Proctor are played with a grieving, tremulous menace. Echlin seems attuned to the complexities of the character, and allows us a few moments of understanding her before we are alienated by her final, horrific actions. Alex Marks brings a refreshing dynamism to the character of John Proctor, playing him as both abusive and tormented, a product of his time as much as he is a victim of it. Very occasionally both McCann and Marks’ dialogue delivery seems a little hurried, but that might just be this American reviewer’s slow ear for the accents. Maddy Page plays Elizabeth Proctor with restraint and steely anguish; her confrontation with her husband is as defined by silences as Abigail’s was defined by words.
In a brief interview after the preview, Echlin elaborated on her vision of the play, and her wish to see the layers to each character: Abigail’s traumatic past, her youth, and her subservient position in the Proctor household; Elizabeth’s fierce passion for Proctor and her adherence to an unsparing ethical code, and finally, Proctor’s abuse of power and the abuse he faces from the more powerful. The play’s verdict on its time and ours is exactly what we need to hear, and this production promises to make you listen.