It will haunt the memory for months, this profound, dark-lit, smoke-scented deep-booming production of Arthur Miller’s play. In the round arena it creates a ring of pity, guilt and judgement: the physically intense direction of Yael Farber makes Salem’s crazy diabolic terror rise again, as fresh as yesterday and as threatening as tomorrow. No need for updating: not in a world where women are murdered by their own families for marrying or converting, confessions are beaten out of suspects and even our milder law sees malicious denunciation, false memory, and a lust for scapegoats.


Miller wrote that when he approached the idea of expressing 1950’s McCarthyism through the 17c Salem witch trials, the “story’s lines of force were still tangled”. But that very tangling enriches the play. John Proctor (Richard Armitage in a commanding performance) has slept with the maid Abigail; when her hysterical accusations threaten his wife Elizabeth with the gallows, he fights with desperate self-reproach, and only through final degradation walks upright into dawn and death. That private tragedy, and the pair’s progress from delicate marital adjustment to terror, are given breathless intensity by Armitage and a fine-drawn Anna Madeley as his wife. But the wider tangle matters as much. Complex political, social and psychological subtleties jab at the sorest places in any society.


The action is driven by the religious witch-hunt, spreading beyond the village’s control: Christopher Godwin makes Judge Hathorne a striking-cobra of a man. But Miller underpins the ludicrous fanaticism about dolls and visions with hints of the small things that corrode communities: rows about pigs or lumber, poor crops and infant mortality feeding an instinct to purge and control which ends with orphans wandering the streets, cattle loose, crops rotting. Hard not to think of the Balkans.


The speed with which Miller plunges into tension is remarkable. After a sinister opening moment when in near-darkness the slave Tituba circles the stage with a smoking cauldron: soup or diabolic incense, depending on credulity. Then we are in the bedroom with Betty in a swoon, the other girls turning their evasive schoolgirl guilt into infectious hysteria, and the suspicion of witchcraft rapidly inflated by Rev.Hale, the pompous theological terrier with books where the very devil is “caught, defined, calculated”. Adrian Schiller as Hale is particularly impressive even in a cast as strong as this, his gradual loss of face and conviction dwindling him to remorse and horror before our eyes.


But the strength of this majestic, perfectly judged production lies in faithful perspective and contrast. After the first hysteria the Proctors in their kitchen provide a glimpse of sane, if uneasy, normality as they reach towards one another, trying without words to forget the adultery, laying the foundation of the heartrending closeness of their final prison moments. As for the ‘children’, girls led by the jilted Abigail in jerking, shouting, hair-tossing accusatory seizures, they display all the bodily ferocity which is this director’s trademark: somewhere between St Trinian’s and Bacchantes. Abigail is Samantha Colley: all glaring black-browed control, her decision to deploy her only weapon visibly growing from the moment she is rejected by her lover after a yearning “I have a sense for heat, John! you are no wintry man…” This ticking bomb is finally detonated by the fussy reproofs of the clerics, but Farber allows us brief levity as male horror at Betty’s faint is set against the calm of Goody Nurse (“She’ll wake when she’s tired of it!”). In this small but pivotal part Ann Firbank is unforgettable, a small pool of sanity amid the chaos.


Soutra Gilmour’s design is a masterpiece of smoky atmosphere, and Richard Hammarton’s soundscape cracks open Hell itself. But above all the beauty of Miller’s lines is relished, explored, set like jewels. “An everlasting funeral marches around your heart..” ”I have signed seventy-two death warrants, my hand shakes still, as with a wound”. Or the final admission of Proctor that he finds in himself “a shred of goodness. Not enough to weave a banner with”. But do weave one for this unstinting, profound production. It does honour both to Miller and to the Old Vic.

box office to 13 Sept
Supported: Bank of America Merrill Lunch / CQSspace/ pwc
rating: five 5 Meece Rating


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