5 September 2014

Stella cast for The Crucible at The Old Vic

The Crucible at the Old Vic was one of the "must see" plays of the Summer (the other was A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, just down the road) and I duly bought my ticket some months in advance. I was not entirely convinced though and I balked at paying anything like the top price and so I went for a seat (B26) in the Lilian Baylis Circle, i.e. the top level. Even up there I had to fork out £30.

It was another work in Reading day but the transport worked well (the main risk was the time it can take to get from the office to Reading station by bus) and I got to Waterloo in good time to try another tasty West Cornwall Pasty before diving in to The Pit Bar for a beer.

Fed and watered I trudged to the top of the building to take my seat. It was comfortable enough and the view was fine.

The stage was arranged differently from my previous visits being almost in the round with a few seats to the side of the stage and a few more at the back. To be honest I am not sure that the arrangement worked for everybody as it was a fairly static performance, it's a play of words not actions, which meant that some people would have spent some time looking at the back of the person talking. I had no such trouble up in the gods.

For all that Arthur Miller was a big name playwright I had never seen one of his plays before and had little idea of what to expect. The running time of over three hours, with an interval on top of that, was something of a clue that this could be a long smouldering American drama in the vein of Long Day's Journey into Night or, more recently, Dances with Wolves. And so it proved to be.

The Crucible told the story of the Salem Witch Trials where a bit of fun, girls dancing in the woods, leads to accusations of witchcraft and this is then blamed for everything bad that happens and suspicious eyes were turned on any behaviour deemed unusual. Behaviour like reading.

A group of honest villagers got caught up in this and were unable to protest their innocence against a tide of supposition and superstition. It did not end well.

As the poster at the top shows, this was billed as a vehicle for Richard Armitage and his appearances in Robin Hood, Spooks and The Hobbit had pushy mums bring their precious children by the truckload. They must have wondered why.

Armitage, as the main hero John Proctor, was convincing enough but he played it a little too close to his other roles, particularly his Spooks character Lucas North, for my liking as he was swept along by events and was powerless to stop them. Perhaps it was because of this type-casting that he was chosen for the role.

William Gaunt, who will always be super-powered secret agent Richard Barrett in The Champions to me, was superb as John's friend who was also entangled in the allegations and who faced them with steely determination and also acceptance of the inevitable.

The story turned when a senior cleric arrived in the village to investigate the witchcraft stories and this was a turning point in the production too. Jack Ellis was absolutely brilliant as Deputy Governor Danforth and, for me, stole the show. He was certain, strong and ruthless as he barked out his instructions. He was the enemy that the villagers had to fear despite his good office. He became the centre of the play that had been a collection of disparate narratives.

The rest of the cast deserve a mention too because, frankly, they were all good.

The Crucible told its long story with some style and would could have been a three hour trial for the audience passed by ridiculously quickly. The ending was a little obvious and was made the weaker for happening off-stage, shades of Chekhov there, but the point of the play was the journey, not the destination, and that was taut, tense and terrifying.

I enjoyed The Crucible a lot, and felt exhausted by the ride at the end, but somehow, as with Streetcar, it did not quite reach the heights that I expected of it and so a good performance ended up feeling a little disappointing.

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