ARTHUR Miller’s The Crucible is one of my very favourite plays. Its themes and ideas outlast the passing of time – reputation, integrity, the danger that lies in fear, are all tropes we can still relate to.
Written in the 1950s as a commentary on the dangers of these things, but set in 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts, The Crucible tells the story of John Proctor, a local farmer who has an affair with one of the village’s young girls (Abigail) who then seeks her revenge when he chooses to return to his wife.
What ensues are accusations of witchcraft – shocking and distressing to the Puritan villagers – which in turn lead to the deaths of numerous innocent men and women.
However, it is no mean feat to take on as an amateur production and my hat is off to Stephenie Pagulayan’s daring steps in bringing it to the Garrison with Islesburgh Drama Group this November.
Performed to a packed theatre three nights in a row director Pagulayan took some new turns with the play. Originally set in Puritan America, Pagulayan brought the play home, using Shetland’s barren, isolated setting instead for the nearly three hour epic; proof that the play can have resonance in any era, in any part of the world.
The setting was anchored by the clever use of projector screens, on which flickered photograph after photograph of Shetland landscape, grainy and aged to ground the play in its historical roots. The rest of the stage was simply set and designed, again a reflection of the simple lives the Puritans of Massachusetts would have originally led.
It also made the four different act locations easier to construct and identify. Some small movements of key pieces ensured the audience knew where they were. Cold, grey brick and plain, dark wood furniture did not detract from the crucial action unfolding on stage.
On the whole, the lighting held a steady, if uneven, glow. Again, this was completely in keeping with the poorly lit, darker homes and buildings these people would have occupied. A few of Miller’s key lighting design elements were lost, however, sacrificed for the changing Shetland landscape portrayed on the big screens.
Nonetheless, the dim lighting upheld the claustrophobic feeling created by the behaviour and actions of the villagers. When Proctor was led away at the end, off stage and down by the audience, the single spot that near-blinded him was a poignant reminder of the death he was facing and the cruelty of the spotlight held on him by the fearful authorities who sentenced him to death.
The play itself opens in the upper bedroom of the local reverend, Parris. An unpopular man, he is fervently praying for his young daughter, Betty, who appears to be ill. The sudden appearance by the audience of the exotic Tituba leading the village’s young girls in a forbidden and strange dance certainly reveals the source of all the play’s ensuing problems.
It was striking to see how Tituba’s side entrance through the audience on one side at the start of the play was mirrored by Proctor’s side exit at its conclusion. The circle of the story was complete, symbolically and in actuality. A clever and thought-provoking directorial choice.
Parris, played by Bob Skinley, quickly established himself as a man who, despite having what appears to be a very sick daughter, is fundamentally quite difficult to like. Tituba was well-played by Charity Johnson who accurately captured the wide-eyed terror felt by a character who was both misunderstood and blamed for many of the problems as they unfolded.
Then entered Abigail Williams. Donna-Marie Leask is a powerhouse of a performer. The more you see her cast by Islesburgh Drama Group in such differing roles, the more her incredible versatility as an actor shines through. Wickedly deceitful and devious, Abigail was portrayed perfectly by Leask as she calculated move after move to destroy the women of the village. Cameron Mackenzie tackled the formidable John Proctor and the relationship between him and Abigail became apparent.
Another show stopper came in the guise of village busy body Ann Putnam, portrayed with fantastic wit and fervour by Mandy Phillips. Despite being a more minor character, Phillips was, for me, a show stealer. Never relenting as the mean-spirited Goody Putnam, Phillips sustained the character fantastically well – this was especially notable during the moments where there are many characters on stage, although they have few – if any – lines. Phillips never faltered, wittering around in the background with conviction.
The Crucible, weighty in themes and ideas, is weighty in dialogue. Deputy-Governor Danforth, marvellously sustained by Kevin Briggs, was an admirable demonstration of this. He effortlessly held his own as a law enforcer with little palpable empathy for the plight of the characters around him.
Aloof and unwavering, Briggs’ portrayal reinforced the strict and rigorous code by which the people of the village lived. Mackenzie also admirably sustained what was an incredibly complex and immense set of lines to learn.
Miller said he wanted to write plays “that would grab an audience by the throat and not release them”. The Crucible does just that.
The calculating Leask as Abigail, the gentle warmness of Morag Mouat as Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, the increasing emotional fury of Mackenzie’s Proctor and the deliciously cold, mean Phillips as Ann Putnam ensured that Islesburgh Drama Group’s run of The Crucible was another theatrical triumph.
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