The Old Vic theatre company, as directed by Yoel Farber, takes on Arthur Miller’s near legendary play and arranges to have it beamed to a cinema screen near you. What’s not to like? Particularly when the interpretation is as compelling as this version, which stars Richard Armitage as a brooding, macho John Proctor and Anna Madely as his much put-upon wife, Elizabeth. The play of course, centres on the Salem witch trials, a device that Miller originally employed as an allegory about the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s. Here the characters are compelled to talk in strong Lancastrian accents – possibly to evoke comparisons with the fate of the Pendle witches, or perhaps to point out that witch hunts can happen just about anywhere? I’m not entirely sure of the reasons behind the decision, but the fact is that it works brilliantly, making Miller’s ageless dialogue sing in a way I’ve never heard it before.
In a note perfect cast, it’s hard to single out highlights but Adrian Schiller’s take on the difficult role of beleaguered cleric, Reverend John Hale, is a particular delight; and how amazing to see William Gaunt as the white-haired and irascible Giles Corey, evoking fond childhood memories of watching him play a young superhero spy in The Champions; what a decade-spanning career that has been! The standout scenes are the ones in which the ‘possessed’ girls, under the tutelage of Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley) crank the volume up to eleven. It’s powerful stuff this, and time has not dulled its cutting edge. Proctor’s final ‘confession’ is frankly the stuff of heartbreak and a demonstration of the way in which religion can be turned to support the forces of evil. A superb production and a rare opportunity to see the Old Vic in all its glory without paying for train tickets to London and a night in a hotel.