I read with some interest the Brisbane Times' review of the Queensland Theatre Company's production of The Crucible. Katherine Feeney didn't like the production at all; and of course, that's her prerogative as a reviewer.
I was intrigued because I popped down to the Playhouse at QPAC on Friday night to see The Crucible - and I really enjoyed the production. Which I guess is my prerogative as a reviewer.
The Crucible is second only to Death of a Salesman as Arthur Miller's most well-known and most often performed play. The story of the 1692 Salem witch hunts is generally seen as an allegory to the persecution of Communists in 1950s America; but really that's too simple a construct. Miller's work is a dissection of oppression and fanatacism in general, and how in real life, Goliath often beats David. It is reintepreted for each generation; lines such as Judge Danforth's "you are either with us or against us" resonate of George W. Bush as much as they do Joseph McCarthy.
QTC director Michael Gow wisely avoids recreating the Puritan Pilgrim look of 1692. Here, the 19 actors wear lumber jackets, cardigans, and 1950s-style three-piece suits. They perform on a raw wooden stage with a few pieces of furniture, in front of a looming dark forest of tall tree trunks. These are frontier people, but it does not follow that their minds are simple.
The performances were in general outstanding; particularly Andrew Buchanan as John Proctor, the farmer tortured by his indiscretion with Abigail Williams, who tries to save his wife Elizabeth only to find himself accused of dealing with the Devil. His accent is quite Australian, almost ocker at times, which initially sounds jarring compared to some of the smoother speaking voices (though no one attempts Massachusetts English, wisely). But Buchanan's expression is all Proctor, and he is clearly a sensible man frustrated by the superstition and hysteria around him, but unable to act as he should wish to because of his own failings.
I must admit to not enjoying Francesca Savige as Abigail, the gamine sprite at the centre of the hysteria. But I put much of that down to not really liking Abigail the character. There is little tenderness to her, as she berates her friends, then embraces bewitchment to avoid the consequences of her lies. Savige plays the "whore's vengeance" aspect well enough; I would have liked to have seen a little more teenage realism. After all, Abigail is a teenager in a repressed society that does not acknowledge her burgeoning sexuality. Kathryn Marquet, however is outstanding as the Proctor's maid Mary Warren; James Stewart is an empathetic Reverend Hale; Paul Bishop stammers and stutters as the cowardly Revered Parris; and Robert Coleby simply dominates as Danforth - who remains cool-headed even as he metes out ridiculous justice.
And it's this ridiculousness that provides the production will moments of absurd humour. Some would think it a sin to laugh during a serious play; indeed, the Brisbane Times review cites this as a major failing by director Michael Gow. But for me, the moments of humour were priceless. They were brief snatches of time where for a split-second you could see the characters' think "Am I really doing this? Am I really crying witch? Am I really sentencing good people to death because of the cries of children?" - before being caught up again in the sweeping tide of hysteria. The whole nature of mass persecution is absurd: the idea people will dob in others just to escape punishment themselves - it is the schoolyard writ large, and we show our understanding of it by laughing at it. Hopefully we learn a lesson from it.
The Crucible is three hours long, including interval, but I did not notice the time passing. The production, like any, is not perfect, but remains thoroughly enjoyable. I notice with interest today Brisbane entertainment writer Brett Debritz has also posted about varying reviews of this production. I would highlight his point that nothing beats seeing a show for yourself to find out.