3hr 37 mins (special filmed version)
It is a testament to director Yaël Farber's (Mies Julie) excellent handling of Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible that, even though its main selling point in fact turns out to be the weakest aspect, the production still delivers a visceral punch. The fundamentals of Miller's work still resonate; we may no longer burn witches at the stake, but in our post-9/11, low-attention span era warped by social media and instant news with instant judgment, we still burn people publicly by other means even without religious fundamentalism.
Having completed its run at the Old Vic Theatre, this filmed version continues to play across London cinemas; in fact this is a specially created film knitted together from two recorded live shows with extra material layered in (some surreal montage sequences and slow motion shots). Richard Armitage, fresh from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit series, stars as the last good man in Salem, John Proctor, in Miller’s drama about a frenzied witch trial in Salem, USA in the 1700s.
Armitage is certainly a heavyweight presence physically and vocally, and has unsurprisingly been the face of the play in all the marketing. Yet his performances doesn't seem to sync with the rest of the excellent cast, coming over somewhat one-note (lots of booming denunciations and glowering) and overly-mannered. Maybe he has been in New Zealand too long playing Thorin the dwarf. He is not by any means terrible however, and the material and cast around him are so strong that this intense production doesn't suffer. Particularly fine are performances from Samantha Colley as the instigator of the witch hunt, Abigail (convincingly installing fear in all around her), and Jack EIlis as the Deputy governor and prosecutor Danforth; a terrifying figure who's lacerating tongue and aggressive stance shred all logical argument against him.
Farber's vision of Salem is immediately striking, a gloomy, claustrophobic set design that sees everyone dressed in black as if a permanent funeral is going on. In a way, it is, as most of the characters will be on the gallows by the play's end. The costuming and makeup give a real sense of the constant exhaustion that toiling in this damp, foggy New England backwater must've inflicted on those in this small tight-knit community, everyone seems tired and muddy.A droning hum projected from offstage as part of the musical accompaniment underscores certain scenes, an unsettling effect that jars the teeth and suggests the rising madness gripping the town, eating away at rational argument. Richard Armitage has spoken of the production almost "assaulting" the audience.
The core material remains compelling. This is not really just a story of blind faith driving a town to murder itself: every character here has another agenda going on, personal grievances are mashed up with lust, superstition, grief and fears for careers and reputations. Humanity in all its shameful savagery.