The Crucible (2015)
Directed by Damien Ryan
Written by Arthur Miller
March 2, 2015 to March 6, 2015
Winner of the 2014 Sydney Theatre Critic award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (G. Adamson)
Winner APDG Emerging Designer for Stage to Anna Gardiner
Arthur Miller's parable of mass hysteria draws a savage parallel between the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 – “one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history” - and the McCarthyism that gripped America in the 1950s. But its portrait of the ordinary evils latent in any society, of mindless, hysterical persecution through ignorance, fear of ‘otherness’ and our capacity to serve ourselves above all others make it one of the world’s most transcendent and important stories, in any age. Damien Ryan’s new production offers an extraordinarily rare experience of this great play, a site specific haunting on the grounds of the 200-year-old Bella Vista Farm and the forest at Everglades Gardens, Leura.
Crucible – NOUN. Pronunciation: // kruːsɪb(ə)l
1. A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures
1.1 A situation of severe trial, in which different elements interact leading to the creation of something new
“…the creation of something new…”. Salem, in 1692, was indeed something new. A new world, still flush with the Mayflower’s sea breeze, only three generations on from the landing of Plymouth Rock. Yet this tiny village of English Puritans flanked by the larger harbour town of Salem, Massachusetts, somehow turned upon itself and systematically murdered its own women - along with a couple of men and two dogs, hanged for witchcraft. An animal apocalypse would fiish the story of the period too, with the haunting image of lost cows, stumbling free from fallen fences, roaming like orphans on the highroad, their owners dead, their bellies bursting with milk but no hand to tend them, screaming in their agony.
It’s simply astonishing. Some accept it was a perfect storm of factional hatreds and economic vengeances, perverse religious fundamentalism, and the snowballing effect of fear and ‘hysteria’. Some see it as a product of the very real belief in the approaching ‘end of times’, the spiritual war between heaven and hell being fought out, potentially right there in the forest that marked the border between Salem and the supposed nothingness beyond, at “the edge of the known universe”, as Miller called it. Still others put it down to the banality of infected rye crops that produced hallucinations and mental illnesses across a community ill equipped to understand a basic scientific phenomenon. And then there is the alien – Tituba - enslaved at age 8 and taken to Barbados from an unknown origin, where she was enslaved again by Samuel Parris and brought to Salem, bringing with her an intoxicating knowledge of fortune telling and black magic that became a favourite toy of the idle village girls and even their mothers, hearing their secret futures read in lonely kitchens. Then, of course, there are the famous girls, the saintly sinners who accused and murdered the village poor and homeless, along with exercising power over any perceived enemies or private grudges. An act of localised terrorism. Their chief weapons? Their screaming voices and repressed imaginations given license to fly.
Miller explores and leaves room for all of these ‘causes’ but focuses his dramatic intentions on another central idea, one he could not help but feel was bleeding through every aspect of the historical record.
“What”, asked Miller, “might have saved this community, if not a raising to consciousness of what had been suppressed and in holy disguise? Almost every testimony I read revealed a sexual theme; either open or barely concealed. Night was the usual time to be subverted from dutiful Christian behaviour, and dozens of the accusers were in their beds when through the window or door, as real as life, a spectral visitor floated in and lay upon them or provoked them to some filthy act. The relief that came to those who testified was orgasmic. Here was guilt, the guilt of illicit sexuality. Had their been no tinder of sexual guilt to set a flame, had the cult and culture of repression not ruled so tightly, no outbreak would have been possible”, said Miller.
Miller ignites his Crucible with two simple acts of sexual release. One, a man in his mid thirties beds a 17-year-old girl in his barn, “in the proper place, where my beasts are bedded”. The other involves this girl and her friends stealing into the woods one midnight, escaping lives of unrelieved drudgery, crushed by horrific austerity, their huge stores of teenage vitality suppressed of every human instinct, their most incidental misdemeanours thrashed with corporal violence by the adults who shape their understanding of the world. In those woods they danced naked and took sick at being caught out. What forbidden joy was it to feel the night air and moonlight on their bare skin, usually painted thick with the hard and heavy fabrics of puritanical modesty?
Shakespeare’s Dream is also built upon young women fighting oppressive male power structures and running into the woods to release their freedom and awaken their sexuality on their own terms. And through it, we learn that cultures need a bacchanalian space, a way to break rules safely, “a heterotopic space” as our Dream director Susanna Dowling called it, “in which to break bonds of repression or disease. If we don’t, dysfunction grows”. It is much like the advice Sun Tzu gives in The Art of War - never entirely surround or encircle an enemy, give them a small hope of retreat, a tiny outlet through which to focus their energy on running away, and destroy them before they can. If you leave them no escape whatsoever, they will fight with everything they have. The girls in The Crucible are surrounded and they fight to the death.
But it is also wrong to play Abigail and her friends as victims, it kills the play. They are mass murderers – terrorists – literally ‘terrorizing’ a community with its own fears and illicit impulses. But the play offers them an agenda as certainly as any terrorist in the world today believes in the profound virtue of his or her actions. The complexity of tragedy relies upon this – that the opposing parties feel they have equal ethical arguments. And that human laws are not suffi cient to explain or control the mystery of our lives, which require higher, unwritten, instinctive laws of conscience – laws of god, laws learnt through suffering. As Proctor says, “we are naked now, and the wind, god’s icy wind will blow”.
When Proctor bedded Abigail in that barn, he opened her body to “something new”, a sensation that now leaves her haunted and routinely walking her house at night “without a stitch on my body”. But more powerfully for the meaning of the play, we have been interested in how he opened her mind. When left alone with Proctor in Act 1, yes she wants his touch, but it is not her primary need, as her first question reveals. “Give me a word John, a soft word”, she says. By the scene’s end, we realize that her desperation is based upon the things Proctor has taught her, the things he has said to her, the conversations that have expelled her ignorance and naivety. She has grown up inside their brief pillow talk in ways he can’t imagine because he is a man and underestimates her power to listen and her right to power. “I look for John Proctor who took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretence Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught… and now you bid me tear the light from my eyes! I will not, I cannot!”, she tells him. She warns him! She will not. And she does not! He fails to hear her. In believing he can bury their sin, he buries her right to “know”, to learn, to grow, he betrays her as surely as she will betray him.
Miller’s play cannot of course be separated from its deliberate connection to the anti-communist trials of the House for Un-American Activities in the mid-20th Century, which broke Miller’s heart. However, as Miller says himself, he was also singularly interested in those extraordinary and factual events in the small New England village of Salem. He set the play in that historical past with an eye to its incredible story, while also turning a fierce glare of rebuke to McCarthy’s witch-hunt of artists and other Americans in his own lifetime.
What does it mean to us now? Thematically, it tells a story we continue to write for ourselves all too willingly. Public fear and the seductive qualities of paranoia and hysteria are still cultivated, often deliberately, to surround so many of our modern global controversies – by governments, by policy drivers in business and media, and now through the social and political power of social media. Sometimes there maybe not even be a clear driving force, purely the momentum of the fear itself, feeding upon its own conception. The result is that we still condemn ordinary people to extraordinary situations of moral and spiritual crisis, leaving them to decide between obedience to local, judicial laws or unwritten, personal, unassailable laws of conscience. The choices of Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey and John Proctor remain the choices of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysian opposition leader who recently returned willingly to a certain jail sentence on fabricated sodomy charges in a nation where people dare not for fear express even an opinion on the outcome of his ‘trial’. In Australia, only weeks ago, he told ABC radio he could not help his country, by accepting a lie and running from his personal definition of justice. Of course, Ibrahim’s story is one of far too many, such as Ben Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s impossibly brave and ultimately crushed democratic lion, born to lose but fearless in the process of his own destruction.
Similar ethical crossroads have faced Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden in the 21st Century. And something akin to a much misreported witch-hunt pursues Julian Assange to this day with the truth of his crimes shrouded in a mist of accusation and counteraccusation. And like Elizabeth Proctor, his inability to respond in an emotionally ‘logical’ way to his initial charges in Sweden saw him declared guilty on the basis of the smile on his face, the facts of his case barely seeing the light of day in many media platforms. Said Geoffrey Robertson of Manning – “…was kept for eight months in solitary confinement, naked and without a blanket or pillow, and woken every few minutes for a bogus ‘suicide watch’. His prosecutors pushed for his ‘confession’ to being ‘groomed’ by Assange, at one point threatening him with the death penalty if he did not confess.” He maintains his simple conviction in the public’s ‘right to know’ that it’s Government was lying to it. I do not blandly compare the moral ledger of these public figures with the characters of Miller’s play, these are “precise times”, as Miller says in the Crucible and these new events are idiosyncratic to our experience, but they are also the product of state sanctioned investigation, contagious paranoia and predetermined legal outcomes. In this way, they burn “a hot fire” in the same crucible.
Even closer to home, the Tampa and ‘children overboard’ crises provided a toxic example of Australia’s capacity for hysterical ignorance and the feeding frenzy that comes with misrepresentation of facts for political motives. Counterterrorism provides a litmus test for our times, being both a genuine and imperative need, while risking a dangerous and darkly xenophobic atmosphere of distrust, hatred and ‘righteous’ violence. “There is a prodigious fear in the country”, wrote Miller in this play, to which Danforth responds, “there is fear in the country because there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country.” There is certainly a prodigious fear in this country at the moment. Another reposte from Danforth may well have come directly from George W Bush – “A man is either with this court or he must be counted against it. There is no road between”. We don’t need to update the play to understand it.
The Rights Agreement available to us from the Miller estate does not allow us to even consider the updating or contemporizing of the play’s setting or events, but hopefully we don’t need to. I have felt no desire to. It is already a contemporary play, deliberately set in a highly specific historical context and asking the audience to find the parallels and reflections themselves. It is an actor’s piece and that has been the starting point for Anna, Sian, David and I in designing and staging it. A simple set, a central dish in which to hold people and their fears of hell, surrounded on all sides by other people, an audience, who are inevitably a collection of judges observing a human trial, and the rest is all in the words. For all the play’s talk of ‘Hell’, it becomes clear that “hell is other people” as the saying goes. So our design is simply about people, intimate, enclosed and fighting for their lives on a platform lit by fire. (And cooled by a big heritage building risk assessment!).
We can stand back from these puritanical thinkers and feel safe from their ignorant, outdated superstitions and prejudices but Miller’s very successful point is that we just can’t. The belief systems and modes of persecution might change but the ignorances and willingness to hurt each other do not, and the ignition point of so much crime and pain in our world is still found in the suppression / explosion of sexual impulse, the most natural thing in the world and yet the ultimate pit of human shame. The play illustrates these things at the personal, familial, judicial and political levels and asks actors to give everything they have to tell it. We are so grateful for their commitment and passion for the play and we hope you enjoy it as much as we have working on it.
"Sport For Jove’s The Crucible is a piece of theatre that engages the audience from the start and does not let go. It is the perfect example of an ensemble performance. The individuals working hard to ensure each part adds to the final picture. It was an outstanding theatrical experience."
"So many parallels and such richness in the play, the performances and the production. It is mesmerising, harrowing and will stay in your mind and heart long after it’s over. "
"While the entire cast should be commended on what was an exceptional performance, special mention needs to be made of Julian Garner as John Proctor. His tortured portrayal of a man fighting against his beliefs and his own guilt is harrowing."
"With dust kicked up from the bare boards, candle smoke and a manufactured cloudburst, this is a spare and frequently immersing production"
Photography by Seiya Taguchi
Adele Querol | Susanna Walcott
Alan Faulkner | Francis Nurse
Annie Byron | Rebecca Nurse
Anthony Gooley | Reverend John Hale
Christopher Stalley | Ezekiel Cheever
Christopher Tomkinson | Judge Hathorne
Emma Chelsey | Betty Parris
Georgia Adamson | Mrs Elizabeth Proctor
John Keightley | Giles Corey
Jonathan Mill | Thomas Putnam
Julian Garner | John Proctor
Lizzie Schebesta | Abigail Williams
Lucy Heffernan | Rich Putnam
Matilda Ridgway | Mary Warren
Matt Edgerton | Reverend Samuel Parris
Michelle McKenzie | Mercy Lewis
Philip Dodd | Deputy Governer Danforth
Richard Hilliar | George Herrick
Suzanne Pereira | Tituba
Wendy Strehlow | Mrs Ann Putnam / Sarah Good
Anna Gardiner | Designer
Damien Ryan | Director
David Stalley | Sound Design / Videography
Jeremy Page | Technical Manager/Operator
Michelle McKenzie | Stage Manager
Rebecca Poulter | Festival Stage Manager
Scott Witt | Fight Director / Movement
Sian James-Holland | Lighting Designer