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  • Jack Starr

★★★★ The Crucible at The Crucible – Sheffield Theatres Revives Arthur Miller Classic with Outstanding Performances

Laura Pyper, Geoffrey Aymer, Sid Sagar, Rose Shalloo, Andrew Macbean, Mark Weinman, Alexandra Mathie and Honor Kneafsey in The Crucible. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Once again, the team at Sheffield Theatres have reinvented a classic. This time, it is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, performed at its coincidental namesake, the Crucible Theatre.

The play itself is timeless, one of the most renowned works in modern theatre and a core piece in the canon of the American stage. Set in 1692, it is inspired by the true story of a puritan village community in colonial Massachusetts, and how their paranoia and hysteria around allegations of witchcraft spiral out of control, culminating in the infamous Salem witch trials.

When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in the early 1950s, America was going through a renewed era of obsessive paranoia, in the form of McCarthyism, or the ‘Second Red Scare’. Hundreds of public figures in the United States were hounded, blacklisted and persecuted under suspicion of communist sympathies. Politicians, writers, scientists, academics – nobody was safe from accusation. Victims of these ‘witch trials’ included figures such as Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and even Arthur Miller himself. Much like the witch trials of old, defendants were often offered mercy if they admitted ‘guilt’, and gave up their ‘co-conspirators’.

Members of the Company in The Crucible. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

It is in this allegory that Sheffield Theatres’ The Crucible finds its image. The set is stark, adorned with red plastic chairs and anachronistic microphones, reminiscent of the 1950s boardrooms in which the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted hearings trying suspected communists.

While the play may be familiar to audiences, the production goes in a new direction. ‘I came at this project without a preconceived idea of what it should be. For me, I always strive to do something unexpected, whatever form that might end up taking’, explained designer Georgia Lowe. The end result works well – though the microphones make little sense in the context of the time period, they are effective at highlighting the desperate speech of the actors, as well as ominously draping and tangling the stage like the nooses that are inevitably waiting for many of the characters.

There is also an interesting recurring motif of milk – characters are regularly drinking it, with a broken milk bottle adorning the poster. It is an adroit motif that ties the production together thematically. Salem is an agricultural community, dependant on dairy farms, and with farmers locked up under suspected witchcraft, there is mention of cows roaming the land unguided. There are also multiple pregnant women in the community, evading execution due to their ‘innocent’ children. As the milk starts disappearing, so does the town’s innocence.

Simon Manyonda (John Proctor) and Anoushka Lucas (Elizabeth Proctor) in The Crucible. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The cast of The Crucible are stellar across the board. Simon Manyonda plays the protagonist John Proctor, a farmer whose affair with a young maid incites the chaos of the story. He brings a certain fondness and relatability to the character, as a good-hearted man whose one moment of weakness is twisted into a web of deception and accusation that swallows the village whole, and we truly feel the desperation as he tries to hold the community together while acknowledging he is by no means perfect. The young maid, Abigail Williams, serves as the primary antagonist. She is expertly played by Rose Shalloo, who perfectly captures the teenage master-manipulator who seeks to shift blame away from her own amateur attempts at spell-crafting onto her former lover.

Another standout from the cast includes Ian Drysdale as the merciless Judge Danforth, whose stoic choice to stand by ‘principle’ in sending probable innocents to be hanged is truly chilling. Laura Pyper is also outstanding as Ann Putnam, a woman who was lost seven children in infancy and believes witchcraft is to blame. Her hysterical outbursts are greatly distressing, and do well to demonstrate the absolute obsessive terror held around the supernatural at the time.

A lot of effort has been put into the lighting and sound design, with orchestral music amplifying certain scenes, and warm orange glows in the first act descending into stark white by the end, with eerie reds highlighting intense moments. An illuminated sign bearing ‘Crucible’ hangs portentously above the stage, as if to drive home both the title of the play and the name of the theatre, tying it all together with one single word.

Millicent Wong (Mary Warren) and members of the Company in The Crucible. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Much like last year’s production of The Good Person of Szechuan, director Anthony Lau has put a unique spin on a familiar tale. Much like that play, The Crucible also remains thematically relevant – there is still considerable resentment and paranoia against progressives and alleged political dissidents in our culture today.

Does Sheffield Theatres’ The Crucible have any shortcomings? There are few – some attempts at interjected humour to bring levity to the play fall a little flat, given the desolate subject matter. Some may have hoped for a more solidly defined aesthetic, more in-line with the 1950s checkerboard tablecloth on the promotional poster, rather than the mish-mash of different minimalistic costumes and set design in the final production.

But, everything that The Crucible does, it does very well, with an exceptional cast and a fresh take on the production. It is nothing less than expected from Sheffield Theatres, who have bought some outstandingly high-level productions in recent years, and who promise many more to come.


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