Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was my favourite play when I was 17 and, along with Lillian Hellman, Miller was my favourite playwright. This play made me read the rest of his work and so many more by mid-twentieth-century American writers. It opened the door to an astonishing and powerful library. But it’s been over a quarter of a century since I read it, so, yesterday, I grabbed my high school copy (which tells me I wrote an essay about its fire symbolism) and read it again.
It’s definitely a product of his time. First performed in 1954, Miller wrote a play about the seventeenth century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, as a response to US Senator Mcarthy’s communist trials in the 1950s, which were especially devastating to writers, performers and anyone connected to the evil liberal arts. In high school, we learnt that this was an allegory, a damn fine one.
Still, as I read it, I was struck by just how relevant and powerful a production could be today in Australia. It’s a world where women (and their supporters) are attacked, trialled and killed for no reason other than their gender. They are trialled by middle-aged men who base their findings on a belief in a big male god and on their certain belief that young women must be possessed by the big male devil because they surely couldn’t be behaving like scared children. The Crucible or Ditch the Witch or Grow up Lindsay. Or, it’s a world where women – especially young women – are harlots or angels; a world where a middle-aged man possibly rapes his teenage servant (subtextually, it can go rape or consent) in a barn, who is then fired by the man’s wife (ensuring she can’t get work) and later declared a whore by the man who certainly took her virginity and treated her like crap. Maybe the MTC’s production isn’t just a star vehicle for Diver Dan from Seachange?
With the text still very fresh in my mind, I was excited about this production.
My excitement lasted seconds.
I think director Sam Strong made a bad sit com about the Salem witch hunts (as a star vehicle for Diver Dan in the worst wig ever put on a stage) by ensuring that any faith, belief or hope is a joke.
But that’s just me hazarding a guess. So, what about some facts? Well, there were a lot of giggles on opening night – and some guffaws. There are some jokes in the play, but it’s not funny. On the page, the scene where Diver Dan declares “whore” and the teenage girls ensure his arrest are chilling; they got the biggest laughs of the night.
No one in that world believes in the god they profess to believe in. Every character in The Crucible acts from their belief in God AND Satan and their fear of eternal suffering. Even the non-believers believe to some extent; belief is the rule that governs this world. They believe in the same way that Senator McCarthy believed that communists were real and could destroy America. They believe it like we believe the sun will set tonight and that Myki is a force of evil.
A play about god and belief can never make sense if the stage world is godless. I think that’s why we laughed so much.
Or it could be the odd acting choices. Act 1 takes place in a girl’s bedroom. Depending on the charaters’ knowledge, this child is either very ill, terrified or possessed by the devil, but the unconscious child is ignored by everyone around her, unless she’s being spoken to or examined. Eleven people pass through the room and 10 of them treat the child – who is either very ill, terrified or possessed by the devil – like she’s a beige rug on the bed. No wonder we laughed when the good Reverend Hale asked for help in case she flew away. The eleventh character, Rebecca Nurse, was the only one who looked at the child with any semblance of care and tried to cover the girl’s naked legs.
But would I have liked this production when I was 17? Maybe.
After all, Dale Ferguson’s design of a pure white building in a hostile black world is stunning and made more so with Paul Jackson’s lighting that creates a parallel shadow play. And Julia Blake (Rebecca Nurse), Sarah Ogden (Mary Warren), Anita Hegh (Elizabeth Proctor), John McTerran (Giles Corey) and Grant Cartwright (Reverand Hale and only after the interval) get close to overcoming their direction and bringing real life and pain to their characters. And Diver Dan? David Wenham’s as authentic and engaging as his wig.
If this were part of an education season, I would have said it’s a dull and oddly literal interpretation of a play that deserves better, but this is a $99 ticket for students on Saturday nights ($115 for people not continuing or having completed their education) and you can see the kick-arse dancing monkey for that or take your family to Circus Oz or see the MTC’s other work, Solomon and Marion. If I’d spent $99 (or even $59*) to see this as a 17-year-old, I would have hated the MTC for letting me down so much.
*Correction: 17-year-olds can get an under 30s ticket for $59. Or, if you don’t want to book in advance, there are super-bargain, but limited, $18 tickets available for concession card holders at the Southbank Theatre Box Office from 9 am each day. (Might be worth ringing to check though.)