“Stop thinking and just write”, I kept telling myself and yet my review of the whole Crucible experience was not coming. It was sitting shapelessly somewhere between my guts and my heart, possibly also stuck sideways in my throat. A strange kind of reluctance catches hold of me every time I have been subjected to one of those close(r) encounters of the fangirling kind and I need to recount the event for my blog. I am rarely ever speechless, but it seemed like that with my trip to London to see The Crucible live on stage. And not for the awesome acting and impressive staging of the play. But possibly more for the inner condition of the fangirl. By committing the experience to paper/screen, the experience is anchored as an event of the past. And how nice would it be to hold on to the present and presence of the memory for a little while longer?
But move on we must, and with four pages of notes, breathlessly scribbled between 1 and 2 am in the morning last Saturday, I at least have a few pointers to fall back on. Although: Let’s face it – it has all been said and done. The experts have reviewed The Crucible and given it the official seal of approval with unanimous five-star labels. Numerous fans have added their unique perspective on the experience of seeing the play via blogs, comments and tumblrs. Is there any need for another
gushing take on seeing R___ A___ acting live on stage? Eh yes. Because there was more to see in the play than the object of our interest in a shirtless scene – which for me ran danger of paradoxically obscuring the impact of the play despite de-robing the main character. But well, that is probably the obstinate fangirl in me speaking. As a theatrical experience, The Crucible hit on many levels, and here’s why: It was a well-rounded performance and production whose cast and crew matched perfectly in the quality of their individual contribution.
The “well-rounded” metaphor is obvious, considering that the play is performed in the round. The “round” theme is emphasised even further as soon as the first actor enters the sparsely decorated stage. In a dim space, with the low hum of indefinable music and wisps of smoke obscuring the stage, the atmosphere is created for a harrowing tale when servant Tituba circles the stage with heavy footsteps. Even if you didn’t know the play beforehand – it is clear that what will follow will not be light entertainment but demand the audience’s attention. I will spare you yet another synopsis of the play and focus on the points that I found particularly interesting in this production of The Crucible.
Set, Light and Music
Soutra Gilmour has already been praised for the pared-back set design that is perfectly adequate as a backdrop for the action. It provides all the props needed to perform the action believably while not distracting from the words, movement and interaction of the characters on stage. But I am surprised that I have seen so little mention of the absolutely fabulous lighting design by Tim Lutkin. For most of the play the designer has been very careful to avoid light-spill unto the rows of seats where the audience sit. From where I was situated (second row) I only ever saw the first row around the stage, evoking the round again, creating a boundary, and simultaneously adding a feeling of claustrophobia to the mix. In the dark atmosphere of the play, light is used sparsely but extremely effectively. I absolutely loved the effect of the strong light shining up through a trap door on the stage (acting as a staircase to the ground-floor of Rev. Parris’s house). The smoke in the auditorium catches the light in sharp, strong lines. When the girls visiting Betty Parris stand at the staircase, looking down, the light catches strongly on their faces. They are eerily illuminated from below, reminding you of hellfire and damnation, an effective implication of the offense they are about to commit. – Similarly, in the Proctor house, the safety of the home is evoked by homely flickering candle-light and a cozy, real (!) open fire burning in a fire basket on stage. Proctor adds to it with the lantern he carries inside – he is the light in the darkness, so to speak, a handy one-stop characterisation of his role in the play. The coziness ends after the interval when the play switches to the court and the stage is suddenly illuminated much brighter than before. This also draws more of the audience into the visible round, turning them from silent witnesses into spectators in the court session (further emphasised by the actors decidedly looking at the audience, as if they are attendees at the court). The light goes dim again for the prison scenes and the finale where Proctor and wife are the shining lights among the darkness. I loved all of the subtle enhancements through the lighting, but I concede that that is probably something a photographer is particularly sensitive to.
While much praise had been given to the music of Richard Hammarton, I have to say that I did not care much for it. Yes, it is adequately eerie and yet subtle, but music, however discreet, is an easy evoker of emotion. I felt slightly manipulated by that. And patronized. I can discern the atmosphere of a scene on my own, thank you very much. If I want music, I’ll go to Les Mis. I wanted to concentrate on the words and the action unfolding in front of my eyes. Having said that, the music didn’t really distract. It merely added a layer that seemed unnecessary and too much.
Movement and Humour
Another thing that really stood out for me was the movement choreography by Imogen Knight. The characters seemed to have been given their own distinctive, dynamic physicality: The girls were highly energetic, bouncy, very fast, nervous like fillies. Proctor, on the other hand, bounced the stage heavily like a bull, possibly and deliberately impeded by his heavy boots.
Aside: has anyone given credit to RA for wearing those boots without socks??? *ouch* Might explain the less than aesthetic look of his feet… He takes large steps, striding across the stage, has sweeping gestures. His choreography is like a deep roar – threatening but also confident, slow, languid and bullish. His wife’s movements, on the other hand, are pared-back, delicate, averted, like a quiet whisper. Reverend Hale goes through a remarkable movement change from sweeping and grand to fragile and scared. Putnam’s bowing and scraping acts almost like comic relief in the play.
Talking of comic relief – there was a good bit of that in the play, something that I had forgotten and not expected. There were many audible chuckles from the audience, something which I didn’t find inappropriate despite the moralistic tone of the play. The gentle humour of Proctor secretly adding salt to the food in the pan and then complimenting his wife on her well-seasoned cooking, Hale’s quip about the weight of wisdom in his stack of books and Corey’s jokes to the judges made the characters more human, more contemporary and easier to identify with. I think the audience was grasping at the rare instances of humour as the realisation became clearer and clearer where this would end.
The “Important” Bit
As for the performance of the man himself – I doubt anyone could be unaffected by R___ A___’s turn as John Proctor. Much of that is due to the role itself. Proctor is the hero. Human, with mistakes and faults, but despite that essentially the only consistently decent soul and rational thinker in the play. With most of the scenes involving Proctor’s presence, he is the most visible character, has the most interesting character arc and most scope for showing the extremes of emotion. And boy did he do that well. I was afraid that the roaring and shouting that many reviewers had mentioned beforehand would obscure the power of the words. Often I find that raised voices in theatre are a cheap trick. Shouts convey drama and attract attention – it is much harder to communicate that without a raised voice. But there was less shouting than I thought, and where the voices were raised, they were understandably so and not for overemphasizing the drama. Nonetheless the five-week run had clearly taken a toll on A___’s voice. His usually so smooth baritone was just that little bit raspy, especially when he had to roar. But the raspiness added to the characterisation of Proctor in a good way: His husky voice had a moving effect as it sounded broken and genuinely scared. There was no vocal overacting imo.The roaring remained impressive, matching the scary, angry face very well. It was a voice with a beard, so to speak.
However, it was the quiet scenes where I loved A___ as Proctor most, the heart-breaking small gestures in the scenes between Proctor and his wife. The attempt to kiss her in the scene in their house, the pleading invitation to go for a walk were accompanied by subdued, hesitant body language. If you had not understood any word, you would have read in the way Proctor moves around his wife that he is a man who is pleading for forgiveness, who deeply loves his wife, and who is desperate to win her back. That was the scene that touched me most – and where I could feel that Elizabeth Proctor is not a cold, distant wife who is sitting on the high horse of moral superiority judging her husband for his adultery but simply a heart-broken woman. Anna Madeley was beautifully understated in that role, her fragile frame, her quiet voice, her measured movements absolutely perfect to characterise a woman who has lost the confidence in her husband, herself and the sentiments that a marriage is built on. – Likewise, the final kiss between husband and wife as they find their love in the sacrifice of Proctor’s life was stunning. I had expected it would be tender and full of regret, even grief, but this kiss was life-affirming, sensual and passionate. What a legacy!!! This was one of the moments in the play where I blubbered inconsolably and completely forgot that it was R___ A___ acting on the stage, and only John Proctor was visible.
However, the use of the North&South hands-on-face gesture was noted *ggg*.
As for the shirtless scene – that unfortunately distracted me from Proctor and brought A___ to the fore. I can’t really blame the actor for being the object of my fangirling, and maybe I would’ve been less distracted had not the scene taken place literally right in front of my seat, center front stage. There was a palpable gasp and nudge between the two ladies sitting to my left (I consciously restrained myself from doing the same to my companion on the right – *phew* the things we do in the name of art…). But I almost wished that he had kept his kit on. Having a wash as you come home from a day’s toiling in the fields certainly adds to the domestic setting of the scene, but the audible ovary popping in the audience slightly obscured the quiet dignity that was meant to be conveyed. Having said that – A___ displayed a nice physique and looked adequately muscular for a labouring man. A bit soft in places, but attractively so. Like a *real* man, not the wispy showbiz God of Berlin. Congenial casting and impressive body-shaping *ggg*
All of the Awards
When the play was over, the audience pretty much leapt to their feet immediately. And rightly so. It is worth all of the five stars, a truly memorable staging of The Crucible with an amazing cast, each and every one of them. All of the awards, as they say!
Standout performers: A____, of course, but also Anna Madeley, Adrian Schiller as Reverend Hale (compellingly convincing), Natalie Gavin as Mary Warren (perfectly playing the scared and easily bullied victim that turns to attack in self-defense), Ann Firbank as Rebecca Nurse (calm, dignified, filling the role and the whole stage with warmth).