Tuesday 26 May 2009

On The Crucible

Some experiences form you more than others.  Perhaps fifteen years ago, I snuck out of the office where I was working and saw Arthur Miller give a reading of his novella, 'The Homely Girl' in an Oxford theatre.  Afterwards he answered questions generously and candidly for at a couple of hours.  The experience did two things, firstly it introduced me to the work of Louise Bourgeois who had illustrated an artists book of the work; secondly it caused me to sneak around the back of the theatre find Miller and thank him.  Just to thank him.

Watching the Sydney Theatre Company's performance of The Crucible, which isn't exactly bad, more frustratingly patchy, made me think how great work can still transcend hamfisted production.

It might seem high praise to say that The Crucible is one of the great humanist works of art of the Twentieth Century.  But such an accolade, true as it is doesn't really do it justice, this is a work of art that claims its effect through painting the shaky portrait of humans both noble and frail in a century blighted by ideology and theory.  And that's precisely the problem for so many directors who approach it.  We all know what The Crucible's about, we know that it is rich in parallels about the abuses people heap on one another when religion or ideology make conformity inevitable.  When Miller has already created a play that does that through analogy what now?  More often than not the answer is that productions are linked explicitly to current affairs, and in doing so lose the power of a universal message.

If notion that clich√© and stereotype are the enemy of art is somehow doubted then the next theatre director who proposes incarcerated characters be dressed in any form of orange jump suit ought to be made to use a set of Victorian pyjamas with convict arrows instead.  We miss much when we bludgeon Miller's text with contemporary references, when its very lasting resonance has come from its archetypal ambiguity.

The production struggles with religion.  The Reverends Parris and Hale highlight this.  When a director decides to evoke the modern day evangelical preacher they all too easily fall into the traps of shiny suits, declamatory hand waving and hammy eye-rolling.  That's the case here, and whilst Nathan Lovejoy is far more restrained as Hale we have been conditioned to find all these 'Elmer Gantry' (or even Reverend Lovejoy) tropes comical, it's hard for any actor to pull that back.  

The emotional core of the play ought to lie in the relationship between Elizabeth and John Proctor, a woman accused of witchcraft and her adulterous husband, whose dalliance with Parris's niece Abigail is the dramatic engine of the play.  It's strange to say that the performances of Marta Dusseldorp and Joe Manning are both very good, in and of themselves.  However the problem bigger problem, the problem of the whole production, is that as they head toward the inevitable climax their scenes together, in jail or courthouse, are played with such shouty histrionics that their power is lost.  Revenge, hysteria, and the brutal logic of a culture of accusation and denouncement, isn't a dish best served hammy.

I often suspect that directors feel they have to 'do' something.  That their imprimatur os somehow required on any text.  The dilemma is that while that 'something' so often this means 'more', greater emphasis, contemporizing irony, crashing literalness but a play as innately powerful as The Crucible benefits from less.

Miller spoke most eloquently against groupthink, against the vicious momentum of conformity and precedent as it crashes into an individual's conscience.  That is not a political position, but an ethical one.  Whilst Miller may have had an admirable political commitment (and it's worth remembering he wrote The Crucible before he was called up by HUAC) and target with the play its power to make us weep and roar cannot be attributed to a local rail against McCarthyism alone.  Spurious staging whether in the shape of Guantanamo jumpsuits of Hillsong spivvery dilutes that essential universal massage, by removing that leap of recognition we make for ourselves directors disengage the audience.

It's difficult to ruin The Crucible' but by making it 'contemporary' we make it historical and partisan.  The Crucible ought to remind us that there is no monopoly on goodness, that "Life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it."  

We should all thank Miller for that this reminder of the importance of that sentiment.

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