MTC: The Crucible

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was my favourite play when I was 17 and, along with Lillian Hellman, Miller was my favourite playwright. This play made me read the rest of his work and so many more by mid-twentieth-century American writers. It opened the door to an astonishing and powerful library. But it’s been over a quarter of a century since I read it, so, yesterday, I grabbed my high school copy (which tells me I wrote an essay about its fire symbolism) and read it again.

The-Crucible-MTC-Photo-by-Jeff-Busby
The Crucible, MTC. Photo by Jeff Busby

It’s definitely a product of his time. First performed in 1954, Miller wrote a play about the seventeenth century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, as a response to US Senator Mcarthy’s communist trials in the 1950s, which were especially devastating to writers, performers and anyone connected to the evil liberal arts. In high school, we learnt that this was an allegory, a damn fine one.

Still, as I read it, I was struck by just how relevant and powerful a production could be today in Australia. It’s a world where women (and their supporters) are attacked, trialled and killed for no reason other than their gender. They are trialled by middle-aged men who base their findings on a belief in a big male god and on their certain belief that young women must be possessed by the big male devil because they surely couldn’t be behaving like scared children. The Crucible or Ditch the Witch or Grow up Lindsay. Or, it’s a world where women – especially young women – are harlots or angels; a world where a middle-aged man possibly rapes his teenage servant (subtextually, it can go rape or consent) in a barn, who is then fired by the man’s wife (ensuring she can’t get work) and later declared a whore by the man who certainly took her virginity and treated her like crap.  Maybe the MTC’s production isn’t just a star vehicle for Diver Dan from Seachange?

With the text still very fresh in my mind, I was excited about this production.

My excitement lasted seconds.

I think director Sam Strong made a bad sit com about the Salem witch hunts (as a star vehicle for Diver Dan in the worst wig ever put on a stage) by ensuring that any faith, belief or hope is a joke.

But that’s just me hazarding a guess. So, what about some facts? Well, there were a lot of giggles on opening night – and some guffaws. There are some jokes in the play, but it’s not funny. On the page, the scene where Diver Dan declares “whore” and the teenage girls ensure his arrest are chilling; they got the biggest laughs of the night.

Why?

No one in that world believes in the god they profess to believe in. Every character in The Crucible acts from their belief in God AND Satan and their fear of eternal suffering. Even the non-believers believe to some extent; belief is the rule that governs this world. They believe in the same way that Senator McCarthy believed that communists were real and could destroy America. They believe it like we believe the sun will set tonight and that Myki is a force of evil.

A play about god and belief can never make sense if the stage world is godless. I think that’s why we laughed so much.

Or it could be the odd acting choices. Act 1 takes place in a girl’s bedroom. Depending on the charaters’ knowledge, this child is either very ill, terrified or possessed by the devil, but the unconscious child is ignored by everyone around her, unless she’s being spoken to or examined. Eleven people pass through the room and 10 of them treat the child – who is either very ill, terrified or possessed by the devil – like she’s a beige rug on the bed. No wonder we laughed when the good Reverend Hale asked for help in case she flew away. The eleventh character, Rebecca Nurse, was the only one who looked at the child with any semblance of care and tried to cover the girl’s naked legs.

But would I have liked this production when I was 17? Maybe.

After all, Dale Ferguson’s design of a pure white building in a hostile black world is stunning and made more so with Paul Jackson’s lighting that creates a parallel shadow play. And Julia Blake (Rebecca Nurse), Sarah Ogden (Mary Warren), Anita Hegh (Elizabeth Proctor), John McTerran (Giles Corey) and Grant Cartwright (Reverand Hale and only after the interval) get close to overcoming their direction and bringing real life and pain to their characters. And Diver Dan? David Wenham’s as authentic and engaging as his wig.

If this were part of an education season, I would have said it’s a dull and oddly literal interpretation of a play that deserves better, but this is a $99 ticket for students on Saturday nights ($115 for people not continuing or having completed their education) and you can see the kick-arse dancing monkey for that or take your family to Circus Oz or see the MTC’s other work, Solomon and Marion. If I’d spent $99 (or even $59*) to see this as a 17-year-old, I would have hated the MTC for letting me down so much.

*Correction: 17-year-olds can get an under 30s ticket for $59. Or, if you don’t want to book in advance, there are super-bargain, but limited, $18 tickets available for concession card holders at the Southbank Theatre Box Office from 9 am each day. (Might be worth ringing to check though.)

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

5 thoughts on “MTC: The Crucible

  • I’m 17 and for the Wednesday matinee I got in for $33. (almost the same as the movies!)

    I thought this production was extremely well executed, not only in its direction, but also the actors’ characterization and stagecraft elements. Strong is refreshingly faithful to the text which is strongly supported by the set and costume design. The minimalistic “room” is used very effectively in visually indicating the symbolism which permeates the text, the way the set expands through the acts is a very clever way of indicating how the hysteria of witchhunting has also spread uncontrollably throughout Salem-expanding from secret dealings in a child’s bedroom to infecting the entire state. During the court room scenes I felt the use of levels between the lower black space and the higher white space was symbolically crucial as it emphasized the conflict of the characters and indicating the power play unfolding-between reason and misguided reason.

    The costume design is also very successful as it clearly indicates both the historical and social context of Miller play-being a puritan American society in the 1600’s-yet I felt the “modern” simplified set-reminded audience’s that a number of ideas presented in Miller’s play are still relevant today.

    Contradictory to this review, I felt that the way the characters engaged with Betty lying on the bed was very effective-they were clearly wary of her and I think this is fitting given the “unnatural causes” circling his aliment. Only the character of Rebecca Nurse has an inkling as to the truth of the saga and therefore the contrast with her calmly direct attention to Betty compared to the other characters is fitting, and credit should be given to Strong for this decision.

    Yes people did laugh, or more likely quietly chuckle-not at the fact that the word “whore” is used on stage but at the clear conspiracy that is unfolding, the characters’ contradictory/hypocritical statements or merely at the hysteria caused by some attention-seeking teenage girls. The final gloomy act, enhanced particularly by the lighting, leaves audience members with no doubt as the seriousness of the play’s subject and feels very far from lighthearted.

    I felt that the whole cast was noteworthy though initially I was concerned about Parris’ authenticity though this strengthened throughout the performance while Elizabeth Proctor was very convincing.
    All in all a fantastic production which was certainly educational and worthy of more 17 year old attention.

    This production deserves much more than a rant about a wig.

    Reply
    • Hi Jessie

      I saw this production last night with my 18 year old daughter. Your review concurs with how we found the production and is more perceptive and astute than the published reviews I have read so far. Most of the criticism seems to miss the point entirely and the reviewers seem to have a very narrow understanding of theatre. Well done Jessie!

      Reply
  • I agree with Jessie-though I don’t like the story of Miller’s The Crucible and do not regularly attend the theater, I did really enjoy this production and thought it was very reflective of the original text. I highly recommend it and contrary to this unsubstantiated and sometimes irrelevant review (myki? really?), I found David Wenham’s acting did not disappoint, as he managed to capture a very complex character with a mind ravaged by guilt, moral confusion, despair, love, lust etc.

    Reply
  • I’m so disappointed.

    Reply
  • Sadly, I did not enjoy this production at all. It’s a great shame, because there are clearly some very talented actors in the cast. I don’t know what went wrong, but I found David Wenham entirely unbelievable. Mostly, I could not believe my ears when I kept hearing Australian accents which clearly shouldn’t have been there. Or should they? I couldn’t figure out if the director had permitted and encouraged the Aussie accents, or if the actors simply hadn’t been able to overcome them. To be asking such basic questions is not a good sign…

    Reply

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