By Ellie Ward
As I settled into my seat in TFTV’S black box theatre yesterday evening, I had a flick through the programme that had been carefully placed on my seat. Apparently, David Barnett has a confession to make. He is not a great fan of “The Crucible”, Arthur Miller’s 1953 play. Despite this, or rather, because of this, “The Crucible” is the very piece of theatre that Barnett has chosen to direct as part of his ongoing Brecht in Practise project, supported by actors and creators from TFTV. Barnett’s directorial motive is clear. He aims to use Brechtian technique and practise to address the “problematic” nature of “The Crucible” – the redemption of the misogynistic, adulterous John Proctor and the vilification of the young Abigail Williams, who finds a strange power in her confessions and accusations of witchcraft. In order to reverse Miller’s “apparent meanings”, Barnett chose to historicize the play, placing the play-world in its historical context. If “The Crucible” is all about confession, perhaps it’s time for me to cough up too. Until last night, I had never seen or read the Crucible. Due to its canonical status, I knew the basic outline of the plot. A sleepy 17th century village awakens and stirs itself into mass hysteria, women are trialled and murdered for witchcraft, with a great load of misogyny packed into boot. I didn’t have much familiarity to make strange, but as the performance began, it became clear this performance was so radically different in style that preconceptions would have been a waste of time.
From the play’s opening, Barnett’s promised stylistic choices were evident. Reverend Parris, played skilfully by the wonderful George Abbot, held together the opening of the piece. The best way to describe Abbot’s movement, and indeed, the movement of the twenty-strong cast members is to envisage a series of tableaux, strung together with various speeds and layers. It was like watching a choreographed contemporary dance at points, every turn of the head was deliberate, no move unnecessary or unconnected to the figure’s social statuses and dialogue. At times it felt as if the deliberate and constructed nature of the actor’s movement was a joke we had been let in on. We soon learnt that the actors could not move or make gesture unless it heralded some clear intention. Actors such as Christian Loveless (playing Ezekiel Cheever) and Bertie Hough (playing Reverend Hale) really picked up on this opportunity for humour, their actions and dialogue wedded together with impeccable comic timing. This stylistic approach reached its fever pitch in the court scenes which opened Act 2, the highlight of Barnett’s production. Abigail, played by Mischa Jones, should be commended here for her fierce and formidable performance. From her subtle and comical nod to the girl’s to begin their ritual, to her rooted and unnerving description of the beast that was in the room, she held the audience, as much as the Courtroom, in her hands, supported by the equally powerful Betty (Jessy Mouquet), Susannah Walcott (Georgie Hook) and Mercy Lewis (Carrie Morrison). The rhythmic gasps of the girls reminded us of the paradoxical nature of the girl’s power, a power embedded in their gender and sexuality.
Similarly, the presentation of Tituba in the first act, a double minority, being both a Caribbean slave and a woman, (represented by the colourful and careful Beth Sitek) was truly refreshing. Despite having the lowest status in the village, as Tituba began to confess her knowledge of witchcraft, Reverend Hale as well as Thomas and Ann Putman (a brilliant duo played by Ross Hayward and Ashleigh Thomson) began to passively nod in agreement with Tituba’s statements, allowing Tituba an unprecedented taste of authority. It was the attention to detail in moments such as these, in which the cast seemed to breathe as one, that Barnett’s directorial voice came effortlessly to the forefront. Whilst being made aware of the clear constraints of living in such a patriarchal society, it was nuances such as these that reminded us that even within this limited sphere, women don’t have to be presented as meek or passive. Infact, they can be brilliantly powerful, even if it is to their own detriment.
This is not to say that Barnett’s directorial vison was without it’s difficulties at points, namely during the acts focused more intently on Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth (namely 2 and 4). It was clear John and Elizabeth felt disconnected from each other, but this also left us disconnected as an audience, as although it is true their issues are rooted in a wider, historical setting (a time where a husband can do as he pleases and face no consequence), their dialogue focused heavily on the emotional implications of this. Once the in-depth, emotional investment is withdrawn from the relationship, the audience are left somewhat cold, as it is hard to ignore Miller’s authorial voice, which focuses so much on the emotions involved in a relationship recovering from adultery. That isn’t to say that the scenes in which John and Elizabeth interacted weren’t visually stunning. Manning and Sharpe-Jones worked tirelessly together to show their strained relationship, and Sharpe-Jones made it clear that Elizabeth was anything but a trodden down, pathetic wife-figure. However, the last scene of the final act seemed to undercut the directorial efforts of the play. Yes, it raised a laugh when Elizabeth responded to Proctors bellowing “I AM JOHN PROCTOR” with an eye roll, but, paradoxically, in focusing on Elizabeth as a figure who refuses to excuse her husband so intently, in the last moments she seemed a bit one-dimensional. Intellectually, I was completely on board with the decision. Why shouldn’t Elizabeth Proctor be sarcastic and bitter? Her husband’s done some awful stuff! But however much Barnett’s production of The Crucible distanced itself from Miller’s voice, Miller’s redemption of Proctor still rang clear in these closing minutes. Whether or not he deserves to be redeemed, it was hard to avoid feeling just that little bit sorry for Proctor. But perhaps this is the kind of conflict and contradiction such a rendition of “The Crucible” is supposed to leave us with as an audience. Certainly, I left TFTV with far more many questions then answers, but that in itself is not too much of a bad thing.