February 2015 marks the ten-year anniversary of the death of playwright Arthur Miller, so a large-scale performance of his work during this month is no surprise. Of course Miller’s compelling play The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials (and by extension about all instances of mass hysteria and impossible court trials) is the first that comes to mind. However, the choice to stage The Crucible is a little awkwardly timed: St Hilda’s Drama Society had just put on this particular play in Michaelmas, which The Oxford Culture Review reviewed here. Staged in the Sheldonian Theatre, with original music composed by Alexander Ho and supported by a huge crew, does Christ Church Dramatic Society and Oxford Innovative Theatre Company’s performance outshine St Hilda’s small-scale but powerful production from last November?
The Sheldonian Theatre offers many opportunities for original use of the stage. The full cast is almost constantly present, sitting on the first tier behind the stairs, which puts a constant pressure on their performance: though the actors mostly sit entirely still during their time ‘off stage’, at times the action extends to this tier. Another impressive use of the location appears after the intermission, when part of the witch trials are performed from the balcony and the chairs in the audience, though the latter leads to a bit of awkward neck-craning on the part of the people in the front rows. The lighting seems to have been less successful, unfortunately: the effects are beautiful, but the floor lights have been taped to the floor in the actors’ walkways – actors tripped over them twice.
The use of live music indeed adds to the performance, especially during the opening scene where Tituba (Anissa Berry) dances with the young Salem girls in the forest. The entire cast joins in the – mostly a cappella – singing, which is used for scene transitions. It is a brave decision on the director’s part: the actors must be able to sing and act well, and it seems that this has not proven to be a problem for the cast.
This production brings very interesting casting choices. John and Elizabeth Proctor, husband and wife estranged by John’s adultery with Abigail Williams, are amazing. John (Thomas Curzon) and Elizabeth (Rosalind Brody) have that rare chemistry which allows them to draw the audience in without speaking a word. Their first scene together convincingly communicates the tension of a marriage falling apart, through body language as much as verbally. Brody is a calm, mature but powerful Elizabeth, providing an excellent balance to the loudly hysterical girls who accuse her of witchcraft. She proves to be particularly talented, also displaying her singing abilities in an a cappella solo. Abigail Williams (Emma Hewitt) is a perfect nasty teenage girl who excellently balances Elizabeth’s personality, and she is rightly disliked from the start. Jacob Mercer brings an interesting take on Reverend Parris, reducing him to a weak, stuttering man. This does not always work well with the acoustics of the Sheldonian, however: when Parris shouts with a stammer, the echoes from the theatre make it very hard to distinguish what he is saying. Sam Liu is less convincing as Deputy Governor Danforth, as his lines sound stiff and remote, even when he is supposed to be emotionally invested in the proceedings of the court cases.
One particular casting decision has such strong similarities with the St Hilda’s performance that it must be mentioned here. In both versions of the play, the only actress of colour is typecast, into the role of Tituba. However, in both versions there is also an East Asian actor playing one of the jury members. Seeing this inconsistency a second time calls into question the role of typecasting in a twenty-first century, international student body. If typecasting is ignored for one role, then why not for all of them?
The closing scene is emotionally overwhelming, again because of the stellar performances of Curzon and Brody. They convincingly lay bare the individual suffering laid on families through the impossible catch-22 the accused found themselves in: confess to be allied with the devil, or be hanged. Here, the use of the Sheldonian theatre fully comes into its own in a bone-chilling finale.
The St Hilda’s version of The Crucible was darker and more disturbing; the Sheldonian Theatre version delivers a more dramatic ending. They may be in rather quick succession, but this new production brings worthwhile new perspectives to Miller’s classic script.
‘The Crucible’ runs at the Sheldonian Theatre until the 19th February. Tickets are available here.