Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

High-paced, emotionally draining performance

The Crucible

RWCMD , Bute Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff , November-08-06
The Crucible by RWCMD Arthur Miller is a distinguished dramatist who requires no introduction. With a reputation for excellence spanning in excess of half a decade, he is renowned for his capacity to carefully look beneath the superficial veneer of reality in order to provide an exposition of the internal machinations and power dynamics that have a formative influence on the society of which we are all a part. The Crucible, based on the legend of the Salem witch trials in 1692, is no exception, with its damning indictment of the individual’s capacity to allow bureaucracy to outweigh honesty, common sense and the will of the everyday man as relevant today, if not more so, than when Miller originally penned this masterpiece in 1953. With the fundamentally prescriptive nature of the text itself providing little room for improvisation, the emphasis in any staged production of this play falls heavily on the quality of the performers who are attempting to make Miller’s fictional world of lies, deceit and personal tragedy come to life as sensitively and realistically as possible. This is no simple undertaking, but the necessity of this approach to the source material was not only identified, but also expertly assimilated, by the cast of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s production, so much so that any professional actor in the audience could not have but been quaking in their boots at the prospect of some of these fledgling performers snapping at their heals in the not too distant future.

The story charts the social destruction orchestrated by the local girl, and niece of the town Reverend, Abigail Williams, who, motivated by jealousy and spite, encourages her friends to feign illness and fright in order to damn those around her as conspiring with the devil, which, of course, precipitates mayhem in this devoutly Christian community. For a compelling three hours the Bute Theatre, located in the main campus of the RWCMD, was transformed by these final year BA (Hons) Acting students into late seventeenth century Salem, displaying the chaos, uncertainty and power struggles that legend has it characterised this village as the threat of witch craft swept across the country like a black spectre, leaving no one immune to accusations of supernatural behaviour. The appropriation of period costume was impressive, with the minimal, simplistic use of props ensuring that the focus of the audience was honed in on the actors at all times and not their surroundings, as well as demonstrating the poverty these villagers were fighting to overcome; from the outset the scene was set outstandingly well, with the concept of class and the associated power dynamic that emanates from the recognition of this introduced immediately.

The play opened with the paternal lamentations of the Reverend Samuel Pariss, played by Jordan Bernarde, who was keeping a vigil at his daughter’s bedside, waiting in anticipation for her to regain consciousness so as to discover the mystery of her late night dancing in the forest. From the outset, Bernarde displayed masterly control of his character, from the representation of Pariss’s confident resolve and inflated sense of self-importance as he yearns for more as a ‘graduate of Harvard college,’ to his pitiful transformation and eventual realisation that his preoccupation with money and authority had led to the destruction of his congregation. Bernarde’s great strength was in maintaining his persona at all times, even when his character was not directly involved in the action taking place on stage. When John Proctor confesses to the court that he had been involved in an adulterous, illicit affair with Abigail Williams, Pariss looks on as the guilty parties are questioned, and the audience could not but watch in awe as a solitary tear slid down the Reverend’s cheek; it was a poignant moment as we could literally see his heart breaking. Although not traditionally considered a sympathetic character, Bernarde’s portrayal stripped the Reverend to his bare bones, exposing him as an ordinary man, susceptible to all the misguidance afforded one by the human psyche, and for this he has our pity. This is a pivotal point in the play for Pariss, and one on which Bernarde expertly capitalised. Through demonstrating the strength of his emotional dexterity on stage Bernarde also highlighted the hopelessness and sadness of the human condition, which doubtless was Miller’s intention. Although there is a sense that Pariss comes to appreciate the fundamental errors of his campaign, his pride and stubborn nature will not allow him to rescind his claims, and at the end of the performance not only has he lost the confidence of his congregation, but the audience is left with a sense that this man will forever more suffer at the hands of his own conscience. Caroline Leslie’s direction in the closing scene cannot be described as anything but skilful, with the Reverend’s desperate pleas to Elizabeth Proctor striking a cord with anyone who’s watching, and also highlighting the relative irrelevance of class distinctions when one is faced with the question of life and death. Despite his pretensions to grandeur, as he pleads with Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of a farmer, he looks set to fall to his knees and beg her, before he runs after the court officials shrieking like a petulant child and displaying little of the integrity he had at the beginning of the play, centralising the idea that we are all equal despite our world possessions, and showing how easily we can fall.

Another shining star was Daniel Curtis, who was fully convincing as the disgruntled, god-fearing farmer John Proctor, with many of the best scenes throughout the performance orientated around his relationship with his wife, the good and honest Elizabeth Proctor, played by the compelling Eliza Caitlin Parkes. The sincerity of their relationship is portrayed through their tactile interaction and the tenderness with which they address each other, which was so convincing that at times it seemed almost too intrusive to watch them as Proctor begs his wife’s forgiveness for his infidelity. Curtis was a dominant presence on stage, and although not physically significantly bigger or taller than his counterparts, his whole aura demanded attention, and he stood as a testament to the fact that honesty, integrity and high morality is not synonymous with an Ivy League education. For despite his humble background, Proctor was able to identify the false claims made by Abigail, and was willing to sacrifice his own reputation in order to save others, and Curtis, with his impressive capacity to maintain high-levels of emotional distress throughout the entirety of the performance, more than did Miller’s creation justice. Towards the end of the performance, where Proctor is accosted into signing a statement in which he confesses to having had contact with the sinister spiritual world, Curtis so effectively portrays the anger and frustration felt by Proctor at this turn of events that for a moment you have to remember that we are watching an actor and not the man himself. With his voice raised, he demands silence, and our attention could not but be focussed on this compelling character as he claims that he will not give them his name. Again, Caroline Leslie’s direction has to be commended, as Proctor moves from his position on the right hand side of the stage as he signs the confession to a place in the centre of the platform, physically representing his movement from a marginal postion and back to that of his rightful place as the moral and ethical centre of the play.

Although it’s not unusual for a play demanding such emotional involvement from the audience to contain comic interludes and characters to diffuse such scenes of high tension, there were times, however, when the performance seemed to balance precariously on the periphery of pantomime. Gareth Aldon, as Giles Corey, although very entertaining, at times seemed to push the humorous to the farcical, meaning that when he confronted the authorities with his deposition, demonstrating again his intelligence without having had the privilege of learning, it was difficult to take him as seriously as Miller’s text would suggest he should be. Similarly, the entrance of Deputy-Governor Danforth, played by Dyfan Dwyfor, seemed reminiscent of the entrance of the big bad wolf in schoolboy productions of Little Red Riding Hood. Although the character himself is written to be totally unreceptive to the protests of the towns’ folk, Dwyfor’s portrayal seemed to take this too far, and he unfortunately failed to develop his role beyond that of being functional and one-dimensional. Although this did, to an extent, work to highlight the inadequacy of the authorities, and if this had been explored fully this would have been a successful interpretation, but there was a sense that this wasn’t the original intention of the production.

The performance was staged in a small area, with audience seating positioned directly in front, and at an angle to the left and right of, the cast. Although the director tried to make the best use of the area, as The Crucible is a play with a large cast, requiring, at times, in excess of ten people on stage at once, this was a huge failing of the production. Although they tried to make the best use of their area, the space in which the characters were meant to manoeuvre often felt crowded, which was unfortunately distracting, especially at times of high tension, such as when Elizabeth Proctor is brought before the court to answer questions about the nature of her husband’s relationship with Abigail Williams. There were so many people concentrated over such a small area that the poignancy of her refusal to call her husband a ‘letch’ was lost amidst a number of curious faces. But this is a small criticism of what was, in many respects, an excellent production. The is a long, gruelling, demanding text, and the actors have to be commended for their unyielding stamina throughout this high-paced, emotionally draining performance (there was only a fifteen minute interval between acts two and three), but, unfortunately, the strain of this sometimes showed with a few instances of the performers stumbling over their lines, although fortunately this wasn’t significantly detrimental to the performance.

This was a fantastic effort at putting on a play usually approached tentatively by weathered veterans of the theatre, and is extremely relevant in the contemporary atmosphere of socio-political uncertainty, at a time when people are still discriminated against on the basis of class. This is a play that explores the dangerous extent to which the unbelievable can be made to seem real if we are willing to validate it, and this was communicated to the audience excellently through this student production. Miller had the extraordinary gift of identifying the abstract concepts and beliefs that form the basis of our social constitution and making them come alive on stage, and these students at the RWCMD did not fail to do his work justice.

Reviewed by: Abby O'Reilly

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