For many, their last experience of The Crucible was a rather tepid film adaptation starring Daniel Day Lewis as John Proctor and a wide-eyed Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams, the two central and most complex characters in this dramatisation of the Salem witch trials of 1692. It is good to see Harvest Rain bringing the Arthur Miller masterpiece back to the stage in their first production of 2004.
Not long in his new parish, the Reverend Paris (Brendan Glanville) is bitter that his Harvard education is being wasted on a distrustful and gossiping flock. Recently catching his niece Abigail Williams (Jane Barry) and daughter Betty (Elizabeth Gibney) dancing in the forest in what appears to be a pagan ceremony, Paris is desperate to contain the situation, finding a scapegoat in his servant Tituba (Pauline Campton).
Thomas Putnam (Tony Pitman) and his wife Ann (Angel McIntosh) are desperate for answers, their only living daughter bed-ridden and insensible after the incident in the forest. Local farmers John Proctor (Neil Davenport) and Giles Corey (Hugh Taylor) and the elderly Rebecca Nurse (Helen Royle) arrive to find Betty writhing as if possessed. Servant girls for the Putnams and the Proctors, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren (Kaela Gray and Joanna Butler) are quickly implicated in the “conjuring of spirits” as the town becomes convinced the devil walks among them.
Paris sends for colleague Reverend Hale (Nick Backstrom) to make ryhme or reason of the madness as the tinderbox of Puritan suspicion and paranoia combusts. The group of girls, led by the intense, duplicituous Abagail, tear apart their small community, wantonly implicating the innocent John Proctor and wife Elizabeth (Kerith Atkinson) among them in their dances with the devil. Deputy Governor Danforth (Leigh Walker) and Judge Hathorne (Paul Newman) arrive in town to play Pontius Pilate, responsible for putting the convicted witches and wizards to their deaths.
In the central roles of John Proctor and Abigail Williams, Davenport and Barry are superbly cast. Barry carries the manipulative Abigail with ease, allowing us to see the tragic consequences of deceit and malice, while Davenport as an innocent yet condemned man gives a gritty and committed performance. Atkinson is fine in her supporting role, her Elizabeth Proctor brimming with strength, compassion and hope.
Backstrom makes a watchable Reverend Hale: the development of his character as the lies and injustice unfold is pleasing. Glanville as Paris starts with promise, but his character could be more fully developed, somewhat lacking the authority and presence required by the role. Campton impresses with her accent and character work as Tituba, while Butler is pitiable as the meek Mary Warren, whose decision to tell the truth comes too late. Taylor has the lion’s share of the (intended) laughs as the fiesty Giles Corey; Royle and McIntosh present achingly real characters.
Lighting by Noel Payne is atmospheric, particularly in the courtroom scenes: the use of candlelight throughout makes a simple yet striking effect. Some of David Parkin’s minimalist sets are effective, but far too often they seem to engulf the ensemble. Better use of the stage and more appropriate blocking would correct this problem. The time needed to strike the sets is too lengthy, and while the use of a singer to distract the audience from the process is a good idea, it becomes tiresome by the third and fourth scenes.
Period costumes by Scott Beavan and Lynne Winter play a large part in creating Salem on the Harvest Rain stage; these two deserve credit for the effort required to dress this large cast. For a modern audience, most of The Crucible runs a fine line between gripping theatre and laughable farce, depending on its delivery. When Mary Warren decides to tell the truth, and the girls “see” her compacting with the devil in the courtroom, the scene requires precise direction to ensure mockery isn’t made of the intensity and horror Miller intends. Director Nerida Jaaniste succeeds in capturing the hysteria without making a spectacle of it, but only just: there are moments when melodrama is allowed to encroach on the otherwise sensible directing.
Harvest Rain have tackled the ambitious task of staging The Crucible with enthusiasm, and buoyed by a strong ensemble centred by exceptional lead performances they do succeed, but not entirely. Closer attention to detail in the development of some characters and a more purposeful use of stage space and sets would better conjure the atmosphere Miller intended. The bottom line: Harvest Rain’s The Crucible takes a good stab at the Miller classic without being the bewitching piece of theatre it could be.