Review: The Crucible at the Old Vic (2014)

This evening, I had the opportunity to see a cinema broadcast of Yaël Farber’s interpretation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, starring Richard Armitage and performed at the Old Vic Theatre in London.

I’d never actually seen a stage play on a cinema screen before; in fact, I’ve seen only one other play, and that was live (Asuncion starring Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha, back in 2011). I’m more accustomed to musicals, and those are undeniably flashy – even the depressing ones. So an intense experience that’s as stripped down and concentrated like The Crucible took me a little by surprise, but in a good way.

The play is a fictionalised account using the Salem witch trials as allegory, but I went in knowing absolutely nothing about its history or the circumstances around its writing. Hence, it became a very visceral and immediate experience, as there was a struggle to take everything in at the same time. From the unusual but welcome cinematographic approach to a tiny stage, the ghostly faces of the audience around the cast, and the ghastly story of fantastical truths and painstaking lies, The Crucible uses all the elements to its advantage.

Everyone in the cast is notably powerful in performance, even if no character is actually likeable. Everyone has done abhorrent things, and so everyone should be condemned – as is the message I took away from this play. Maybe I’m slightly wrong, and some of these characters “should” be able to repent. I just find themes of repentance a little too “easy”, especially in a three-hour play that’s basically about unreliable narrators. Does anybody get what they supposedly deserve? In my opinion, the play leaves viewers suitably unsatisfied with their answers to that question.

Richard Armitage approaches the character of John Proctor with surprising vocal ferocity; all the characters he’s played that I’ve seen so far have been suitably muted and mostly quiet. Here, he is cold and menacing, suiting his generally sullen appearance anyway. Samantha Colley breathes such life into Abigail Williams, and watching her is captivating. These are definitely the two standout performances, in my opinion.

The up-close-and-personal vibe the cameras provide allows the audience to really get into the story of the play, but I do wonder how it differs from being able to see the entire stage all at the same time. Being able to not only hear the nuances on the actors’ voices but to see it clearly on the faces just makes it feel like any motion picture, but as with theatre, so much is to do with the characters’ relationship with their space. That is, making a tiny space work in their favour to create concrete settings for their emotions.

However, I don’t necessarily think this adaptation fails because of that, even if I am sceptical. The format certainly lends itself to cinemas very well, and in a space as small as the Old Vic, it’s perfectly fine that the cameras do a lot of the legwork for the audience. If anything, it gives us more time to be able to digest what we’re seeing. The music used to segue between acts is beautifully haunting, and the choice to blend images over one another is pretty straightforward. It adds moodiness, and emphasises the fiction/reality dichotomy.

As a whole package, The Crucible just works. It’s a stunning piece of cinematic performance as well as a theatrical one. It requires a lot of attention and demands that your allegiances be completely destroyed by the end of it. It’s also not particularly happy, but even if I didn’t expect anything less, I was still surprised that it did so much more.

★★★★½

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