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Review: The Crucible, Gielgud Theatre - abuse of power in the spotlight

Milly Alcock as Abigail Williams  Brian Gleeson as John Proctor and the cast of The Crucible west end. Credit Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Milly Alcock as Abigail Williams, Brian Gleeson as John Proctor and the cast of The Crucible, Gielgud Theatre 2023. Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

What struck me most about the National Theatre's production of The Crucible, which has transferred to the Gielgud Theatre, is the focus on the abuse of power.

Arthur Miller's play is set around the Salem witch trials but was written as an allegory for the McCarthy purge of communists in the 1950s. I've seen productions which highlighted 'otherness' and suspicion of strangers, but here it's about the power imbalance and the misuse of that power.

The Salem community at the centre of the story is a theocracy with little scope for individual freedom. It's a point emphasised in the first church-set scene where Abigail Williams (Milly Alcock) is roughly pulled out of the congregation for 'messing about'.

We then move to the home of Reverend Samuel Parris (Nick Fletcher), where his daughter Betty (Amy Snudden) is in a cold faint, having been 'startled' by her father, who discovered her and her friends dancing in the woods.

The girls have little agency; they are shouted at, ordered around, shaken, pulled and pushed - mostly by men.

Parris' sermons, we learn, focus on fire and brimstone, and so you get a devastating combination of self-preservation and desire.

Rumours and suspicion of witchcraft are rife in the extended community. To protect herself and her friends and cover up what they were really doing, Abigail claims witches made them dance.

The spark of suspicion quickly takes hold, fanned by a community burdened by grudges and petty squabbles.

John Proctor (Brian Gleeson), who dislikes Parris' style of preaching, is drawn into events when his wife Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is among those accused of witchcraft. 

Ironically it is his past behaviour which set events in motion. Proctor has abused his power and seduced the teenage Abigail, who was working as a maid in his house, throwing her out when Elizabeth discovers the affair.

It makes the girl's behaviour and desire for revenge understandable - if not forgivable - except it all gets out of hand. 

The Crucible west end. Credit Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
The Crucible, Gielgud Theatre 2023. Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The staging adds to the feeling of isolation and claustrophobia; a sheet of rain between scenes hems in the set, and the lighting gives the appearance of space shrinking.

It has an eerie, charged atmosphere, the girls appearing at the back of the stage and singing snatches of choral music. It's also a reminder of the power of fear fuelled by the religious teachings that were supposed to protect them.

I've seen very muscular portrayals of Proctor and milder, contemplative versions, and Gleeson is somewhere in between. He's at his best in the quieter moments, particularly the final scene with his wife.

For the most part, this is a gripping production. The tension slowly builds through the first half, but in the second half, it feels like the battle for control and justice is already lost, and despite the anger and exacerbation, it has a veil of inevitability. I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

The Crucible, Gielgud Theatre

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Starring: Brian Gleeson, Nick Fletcher, Milly Alcock and Caitlin FitzGerald

Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, including an interval

Booking until 2 September; for more information and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website

Other Crucible reviews for comparison

The Old Vic, starring Richard Armitage

Walter Kerr Theater, New York, starring Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Saoirse Ronan

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