It is a calculated irony that Ivo Van Hove has set his modern dress production of The Crucible in a school classroom. Arthur Miller's play about a Salem witch hunt was written to reflect the hysteria and suspicion surrounding communism in 1950s America. Today you can replace communism with any number of groups on whom a generalised suspicion and distrust falls. Nothing changes. You could chalk it up on the blackboard at the back of the stage but the lesson hasn't been learnt.
Ivo Van Hove's cast, a mixture of American, English and Irish actors mostly speaking with their native accents, plays into this idea of prejudice and suspicion of outsiders. Abigail, the spurned school girl and the first to plant the seed of suspicion that there are witches in Salem, is played by Irish/American actress Saoirse Ronan. She is an orphan taken in by another family and has a different accent to her school friends. There is a distinct sense of fighting to get attention, fighting to fit in and be accepted.
Rev Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner) is also an outsider. He's a university graduate and has had to fight hard to gain the respect of the community to which he ministers. As he starts to gain acceptance he will do anything to protect that.
There is also petty squabbling amongst the farming community which adds further tinder to the fire. Disputes about land boundaries move from one courtroom to another when competition can be eliminated if the finger of witchcraft is pointed in the right direction.
Into this brittle environment steps John Proctor (Ben Whishaw), who lives slightly outside the community and doesn't attend church regularly. He and his wife Elizabeth (Sophie Okenedo) have English accents. It is his relationship with Abigail which seals his fate and sets the community onto the destructive path.
He's a flawed and tragic hero. He has seduced his young maid Abigail while his wife is sick and got caught. Elizabeth dismisses Abigail who is ostracised by the community. When caught dancing in the woods by Parris she explains it away as a witches influence, lighting the touchpaper. It gives Abigail the attention she craves and allows her to get her revenge on the Proctors.
John is contrite for his affair and has been trying to make amends. In casting Ben Whishaw Ivo Van Hove has gone against type. Proctor is normally played by actors of bigger stature and build, a physical, manly man - I saw Richard Armitage play him at the Old Vic a couple of years ago. By removing the overt manliness of Proctor you get a character who is no less passionate but certainly more of a sensitive, caring, thinker. You see it in the way he coaches Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson) through her court evidence. There is a gentleness and genuine concern in the way he smooths her hair out of her face or holds her protectively or rubs her back when she is afraid. He treats her as a frightened child not just a means of putting an end to the injustice that has enveloped the town. It puts his affair with Abigail's in a different light and I'd love to know what they said about that in the rehearsal room.
Ivo Van Hove's direction is very naturalistic, there is an air of domesticity at the start - a cook pot bubbles away in the Proctor home. The tension builds slowly, helped by Philip Glass's subtle but searing music. Throwaway lines take on their own power, become evidence for the prosecution. The blackboard takes on a life of its own, the girls when possessed are like something out of a horror movie, you almost expect their heads to rotate and when a wolf* wanders through the class room it feels like an omen.
As John Proctor's voice of reason and rationality loses its purchase in the community, Abigail's influence grows. She enjoys the attention and power and can bend the girls behaviour to her own with a look or by just standing in a certain place.
In the end the final scene between John and Elizabeth is quietly intimate, as if they've found the peaceful spot at the centre of the storm. You feel John's fear, his dilemma and resolve. You feel his love for his wife and his resignation to fate. You feel her love for him and love in her guidance. It is heartbreaking to watch.
Ivo Van Hove's The Crucible is a powerful production and emotionally destructive. It drew gasps from the audience as it no doubt did when it was first performed - its impact hasn't diminished with time.
It is three hours long with an interval and is on at the Walter Kerr Theater, New York until July 17.
* The wolf is actually a dog, a rare breed called the Tamaskan which looks very much like a wolf. Complete scene stealer.