by Arthur Miller
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake
From an email to the family:
I think I need to be reminded occasionally what really mature actors and really sophisticated scene design and lighting can actually achive. It isn't exactly like you forget, but you can somehow get accustomed to TNB and really good amateur productions and you need a shot of the real thing occasionally to keep your sense of proportion.
This was the third production of The Crucible we've seen in about a year and a half, and so we're pretty much into the structure of it from the beginning, so perhaps it was stronger for us, but we were blown away by the power of the production. There were elements that I didn't think we so strong, I guess, but on the whole it ws an overwhelming experience. They got damn near everything right. The two most impressive things about the production were the maturity of so many of the actors (these people come with decades of experience at theatres around the world, and know how to do it -- how to let a pause grow, how to make an entrance, how to be the focus of attention when doing absolutely nothing. But I want to try first to talk about the conception and look of the production. The costumes were absolutely conventional for 1692, I think, with farmers looking like farmers and the smarmy popinjay of a minister, Parris, tricked out in black looking like a Harvard educated ponce stuck among the rustics, and the judge, Danforth, in his buckle shoes and full bottom wig (which, at one wonderful moment he removed to map his perfectly bald head). But the set was not naturalistic at all. Like Ilkay's bare square, it reminded you tha although these people were 18th century New England Puritans, the issues are ones that go way beyond that particular moment in history.
The set was a bare wood floor, with this, um, apparatus over it. Imagine a 20X30 screen door made of what looked like 10X10 beams, with metal mesh between the beams. Then imagine it mounted on two huge wheels, one on either side of the stage, so it can rotate on an axis, becoming at one point a horizontal floor, suspended about ten feet above the stage, and then rotated 90 degress, become the back wall, where you discovered that it' s perforated with a door or two. When the play started it was tilted at 45 degrees, toward us, and the first scene, which is in the attic of Parris' home, was played under it, as though it were the roof. In the second scene it was horizontal, and became the floor of the upstairs bedroom over the Proctors' kitchen. How it got there, though, was pretty impressive. At the end of the the fisrst scene the girls begin screaming about who in the village they've "seen the Devil with" and Miller's stage directions call for bedlam to break out. What happens in the Shaw proiudction is that the girls start screaming, people start running about, and the huge wheel starts to turn, like some Brogdingnagian paddlewheel, with people running back and forth under and behind and in front of it, dragging the Parris furniture off and the Proctor table on. The lights go down and back up, and there's Elizabeth standing next to a crib upstairs and John coming into the kitchen from the side. Same kind of thing happens between scenes three (the anteroom of the court) and four (the prison cell).
What all that does, I guess, is suggest that the forces at work here are bigger than just a few religious fanatics or conniving propery owners or manipulative children -- and you might argue that this production, more than either of the other two I've seen, is actually about the individuals, so maybe the huge mixmaster is inconsistent. I guess, but it didn't feel that way to me.
There were lots of wonderful performances by veteran actors. The guy who did John Proctor was powerful in a kind of traditional, blunt way; you could believe that he'd played Oedipus. At the end, when he finally decides that he's not going to "confess" to witchcraft to save his life, his "Leave me my name" actually brought tears to my eyes. Both Elizabeth and Abigail were more restrained, but I thought pretty powerfull, and the Reverend Hale was pretty affecting (in some ways I've always thought the play was really about him -- though this one made John Proctor so central that you didn't feel that way). But there were a couple of real surprises. There was Mary Warren, the girl who changes her mind and testifies that "it all were a fraud," and then is destroyed by cross examination and bullying by the court: in other productions we've seen we werent' shown, really, how agonizing it all is for her, but here we were invited to watch her face -- for instance, when the judge orders the other girls brought out to confront her. The other was Goody Nurse, who in most productions we've seen has really been a very minor character -- she's there, really, just to be the visible example of perfect virtue accused and condemned. But at the Shaw she was made more central, almost entirely by her placement on the stage and the way * used it. For the first scene, for instance, while the first accusations of witchcraft and propoery theft were being thrown around, the production ostentatiously seated her center stage (she's old, and walks, very laboriously, with a cane, so her entrance can be made a big deal, and so can her being seated), and she acts not only as a victim but as a visible witness. Similarly, at the end, when she's brought in to watch John Proctor "confess" (in the hope that she'll take him as an example and confess as well), her attention to Proctor whilo he struggles with the dilemma, makes his position even more painful.
Anyway. On the drive back up to Toronto we mostly just thought about it. It was one of those theatrical experiences that stays with you. We'd discovered that the production of The Real Thing at SoulPepper that we'd planned on seeing Wednesday night was sold out, and we felt that maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, that we were just filled up with theatre.