The Crucible

Assassination Nation

24/11/18

Salem. Teenage girls. Mass hysteria. And death. Assassination Nation‘s parallels with the witch trials are not subtle. But they are bold and audacious, timely and provocative. This is a fascinating film.

It’s not a retelling of The Crucible, but it riffs on the themes: a society bound by rules so strict that no one really follows them; the chaos that’s unleashed when the underbelly is exposed. And the teenage girls, easy scapegoats for the mob. Why look for someone else to blame when there are sassy, sexy young women strutting about the town, showing off their nubile bodies and their high intellects?

Lily (Odessa Young) is our heroine: an eighteen-year-old with attitude. Her parents are Mr and Mrs Uptight, squarer than a box, but Lily has opinions of her own. She’s smart: when the school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her to task for submitting pornographic drawings for an art assignment, she argues eloquently; these are not mindless ‘shock-the-system’ images, but a considered response to the world she knows. Taken aback, the principal acknowledges she’s right, but asks her to concede: ‘This is high school; it’s not appropriate here.’

And that’s kind of the point of the whole film: that we all collude in pretending reality is something else. We wear our masks and present public selves that are very different from our private selves, and (some of us) outwardly condemn others who are seen to do the very things that we do too. Writer-director Sam Levinson clearly has something to say about this, and he’s not shy about saying it. The utter absurdity of modern American life is mercilessly exposed.

Things begin to fall apart in Salem when an anonymous hacker starts uploading everybody’s secrets: texts and emails, photographic caches, google searches, everything. It’s no longer possible to maintain the illusion that everyone follows the creeds laid out for them, and the fallout is huge. At first it doesn’t seem to matter too much: the mayor is rightly exposed as a hypocrite, standing on a ‘family values’ platform, denying LGBT+ rights, while secretly cross-dressing. But we soon learn that he’s a victim too, that no one can flourish in a world that condemns individuals when they reveal the truth about themselves.

And then, as more people have their private lives revealed, we discover that the mob is hungry for blood. Even the most innocuous photographs are seen as proof of corruption; we’re back in Crucible territory now: if you’re accused, you’re guilty; there’s really no way out. Eventually, inevitably, Lily’s own phone is hacked. She’s been sexting with a married neighbour, so the townsfolk have a lot to say. The baying crowd turns on her and her friends: they are literally out to kill.

This is a vibrant, pulsating movie, that screams its message loudly and proudly – and largely successfully. Oddly, I detest the first fifteen minutes or so, and am actually contemplating walking out of the cinema (something I haven’t done since Heat) but I’m glad I sit it out, because – once that frantic, in-yer-face, split-screen throbbing is over – it all starts to fall into place, and the opening makes sense in context too.

It’s a film for our times, that’s for sure. There are tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings that seem at first to be poking fun at ‘snowflakes’ but turn out to foreshadow scenes that show how relevant these issues really are. There’s a chilling moment where a mob is chanting, ‘Lock him up!’ about an innocent man: no prizes for making the connection here. I said it’s not subtle. But why should it be? Sometimes the most affecting art is created using broad strokes.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the girls become avengers – it’s clear from the posters, after all, but I have some qualms about the way in which weapons are used in this final third. It’s all a bit glamorous, a bit ‘good-guy-with-a-gun’ for my liking. But then, I suppose, the truth is this: in a society as rigid and divided as modern America, the suits who make the rules really had better look out. Because the guns are out there. And those they seek to victimise know how to use them too.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Crucible

Royal Exchange - THE CRUCIBLE Jonjo O'Neill (John Proctor) background Sam Cox (Giles Corey), Leah Haile (Betty Paris) photographer Jonathan Keenan Royal Exchange - THE CRUCIBLE Peter Guinness (Dept Governor Thomas Danforth) & Stephen Kennedy (Rev. Samuel Parris) photographer Jonathan Keenan

23/09/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is, undoubtedly, one of the great plays of the twentieth century. Written in the early 1950s, it was based around actual events that unfolded in the Puritan community of Salem Massachusetts in 1689; it was also Miller’s opportunity to openly air his feelings about a current event, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist ‘witch’ hunt, without fear of retribution. The similarities were there for all to interpret, but Miller was above reproach, as he could argue that he was simply retelling a slice of history – even though, on closer examination, it appears that he took considerable liberties with the facts. Luckily, nobody bothered to check.

The Royal Exchange’s latest reinterpretation, directed by Caroline Steinbeis, is fascinating. It takes place on a stripped, circular dais across which the sizeable cast act and interact with considerable skill, so much so that when they take their final bow, you’re amazed to realise how many people are actually involved in the proceedings. It’s no longer a period piece – there’s not a stovepipe hat or lace collar in sight. The male actors wear clothing that could easily fit into any rural community of the past thirty years, while the women are dressed in frumpy, near identical dresses, emphasising how much they are made to conform to the expectations of the God-fearing men who surround them.

We’ve seen many versions of The Crucible, but few that delineate the various strands of the tale as clearly and powerfully as this one does, and, in an age where political and sociological witch hunts have become an everyday occurrence, the story seems more prescient than ever. As John Proctor, Jonjo O’ Neill gives a dynamic performance, his strident Northern Irish accent lending his final scenes added power, while Ria Zmitrowicz’s portrayal of the hapless Mary Warren is also a highlight; who knew that there was so much comedy to be mined from her role?

But it’s perhaps unfair to single out individual performances, when this is so undeniably an ensemble piece; there are, frankly, no false notes here.

The Exchange is famed for its ‘wow’ moments and, in the final stretches of the play, that slightly inverted dais is suddenly transformed into a gathering pool of water under a jaw-dropping rainstorm – through which the protagonists are obliged to wade. Coming as it does during Proctor’s final confession, this seems to us to symbolise the way in which a truth can irresistibly spread, to engulf all those who would seek to adapt it to suit their own ends. It is also, perhaps, an allusion to ideas of rebirth and baptism. Others will undoubtedly have their own interpretations; whatever, it will certainly stimulate much after-show conversation as you head for home.

This is a superior production, beautifully staged and expertly acted. Don’t miss it.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney and Susan Singfield

The Crucible

Unknown

4/12/14

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.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney