NT Live: Cineworld, Edinburgh
It’s a Thursday night, and a bit of a scramble getting to the cinema after work for a 7pm start. There’s certainly no time for anything so trivial as say, food, this evening. Sure, it’s The Crucible, and we’ve read a lot about this latest production from the National Theatre. But is it worth skipping a meal for?
Thankfully, Lyndsey Turner’s interpretation of Arthur Miller’s timeless classic is so absorbing that we forget our empty bellies: we’re right there in Salem, Massachusetts, drawn into the destructive hysteria of the seventeenth century witch trials.
The story is well-known. A restrictive society collapses in on itself; petty grievances escalate into accusations of witchcraft; accusations of witchcraft further escalate into a feverish cull. Powerful men exploit vulnerable children, and women pay the price.
In this production, power imbalance is given centre stage. Erin Doherty’s Abigail Williams is no feisty seductress; instead, she’s a troubled teenager, all stroppy self-absorption and wounded spite. I like the way the girls are styled – as artless kids, kicking against a regime that affords them little in the way of entertainment, let alone autonomy. Proctor’s attempt to blame Abigail for their affair is shown as fundamentally flawed. It is his transgression, because he is the adult.
But he’s a victim too, and Turner’s direction highlights class warfare as well as misogyny. Hathorne (Henry Everett) and Danforth (Matthew Marsh) represent the ruling elite, issuing diktats and seizing ever more control. Reverends Parris and Hale (Nick Fletcher and Fisayo Akinade respectively) are the useful middle-class idiots, serving up the workers to the toffs. They’re very different men, but they fulfil the same role: condemning the villagers to their dreadful fates.
Es Devlin’s roofed set is wonderfully oppressive, a sheet of rain acting as an extra barrier, showing how cut off and isolated the villagers are, making their implosion all the more credible. The costumes (by Catherine Fay) also work well to create a sense of timelessness: they’re sort-of period, sort-of modern; not-quite-now but not-quite then. And what is The Crucible if it’s not a play for all ages, exposing our ongoing susceptibility to witch-hunts, both literal and metaphorical?
Brendan Cowell’s John Proctor is fascinating. He’s a shambling contradiction of a man: an honest cheat; an exploitative victim. I think he might be my favourite of all the Proctors I’ve seen, illuminating the character’s complexities. Here, he’s styled almost as a lone cowboy – a broken maverick, who comes good in the end. “Because it is my name” is such a weighted line, fraught with audience expectation (akin to Lady Bracknell’s “A handbag?” or Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?”) and it’s nice to see it being played down, spoken softly, as if it’s a simple, self-evident thing.
I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: hurrah for NT Live. It means that our ‘national theatre’ really is national – easily accessible and (relatively) affordable. And definitely worth one missed evening meal.