Nothing to shout about

Went to see The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic on Saturday (10th October) – my first visit there for some years. The Crucible is a play I know very well, having directed a schools’ production of it for Theatre About Glasgow (The Citizens’ Theatre) in 1978. My research on it formed most of what I know about Senator McCarthy’s reign of terror, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, how Hollywood became involved, which stars named names to save their skin and which refused. Since then, I have found it very difficult to watch a John Wayne movie. I contacted Larry Adler (who was pressurised to name names and fled to Europe) who was very helpful to a naive, young director highlighting the contrasting ethics of the era.

I have fond memories of working in Glasgow, the exciting rehearsal period and the great actors in the production – Rita Adam remains a friend. I had learnt about the journeys the writer, the story, the play, the actors and, most importantly, the audience take; although related they are never exactly the same. Like any journey, they must have a start point, they need to progress through light and dark, crisis and fulfilment, always working on the imagination of all participants towards their culmination.

At The Bristol Old Vic, Director Tom Morris made the most profound directorial mistake by allowing the play, the actors and the audience nowhere to go. They started by shouting and shouted throughout. I felt for the actors’ voices, for the audience’s ears and, yes, for Arthur Miller’s play. Unfortunately, the programmes had not turned up so playgoers were denied putting actor’s name to character.

Kika Markham, that experienced and well-respected actor, was unmistakable playing Rebecca Nurse. She did her best to rein in the extreme emotion demanded throughout but could do only so much to make sense of the cacophony. The only other actor I recognised was Jeffery Kissoon, whom I knew from Young Vic Days, playing Deputy-Governor Danforth. I have looked at the video on the BOV website since then; it shows  actors of thought and ability who surely deserved a better path – or stage – to tread. I particularly liked the actors playing Reverend Hale (Daniel Weyman), John Proctor (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Elizabeth Proctor (Neve McIntosh), Abigail Williams (Rona Morison) and Mary Warren (name not mentioned) whom, in the video, talk about their characters with emotional insight.

The sets were sparse but stylishly conceived and the backing of live greenery lent atmosphere and authenticity to the play’s location and period; costumes were perfectly in keeping with the austere, practical lives of the characters (both designed byRobert Innes Hopkins), with well-conceived lighting (Richard Howell) giving mood and focus. Some wonderful choral work composed by Dave Price and sung by the cast lifted the evening to a level beyond the poor execution of the play itself and did much to salvage the production.

I heard question about certain characters other than the freed slave Tituba being played by black actors (Judge Danforth, Reverend Parris and Francis Nurse) whose casting was occasionally at odds with the character they played. Casting by merit clearly overruled historic authenticity. There are frequent references to ‘the Barbadoes’ religion and Tituba’s cultural difference to the other characters and the period (early 17th Century) was one when the difference between black and white was stark. Was it confusing to those seeing the play for the first time? I can’t answer. We know that most of the settlers in that area were protestants / dissenters from the South West of England and yet Scottish accents abounded in the production. It was a historical possibility and didn’t bother me (nor did it in my production all those years ago).

Other than that, I have to say yes, it did make me want to get back into that rehearsal room, if only to give the actors – and the audience, some relief.

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