Friday, 15 June 2018

The Crucible - The Ben Kingsley Theatre, Salford City College, Pendleton, Salford.

For these students, now 18, this was their final production with Pendleton Sixth Form College, and was a culmination of their two years' of study at one of England's foremost pre-university level training centres in the performing arts.

The production uses two casts on alternate evenings and even then, some of the main characters in the play are played by more than one actor/actress. I fully understand the need for all the students to have their fair crack of the whip, but in this classic work, which, let's face it, is convoluted and peopled enough, having six of the protagonists played by two different performers, was a step top far even for me. I know this play well, but even I had some level of difficulty keeping up with so many alter-personas.

The set was also rather odd. We were presented with an omnipresent 'tree''  The branches were modernist and made from material, whilst the short stump from which they came looked, as an audience member behind me so rightly suggested. much more like a volcano.  When the vast majority of the scenes in The Crucible take place inside, and further this tree was neither referenced nor even used, I failed to see its symbolism or need. I suppose it could be offered that the breaking up of a close-knit community unit could be represented by a sturdy trunk sprouting many different branches, but even so, it was a very weak link if that was the case. Needless to say, I didn't think the set 'worked'.

The costumes were in general, good, and a good effort was made to stick to the correct period and dress code (not an easy ask these days unless you can afford to have the costumes made for you!), so credit to Georgia Brown for this.

Overall, I was impressed by the standard of acting throughout. The Crucible is by no means an easy play to perform...

It tells the story of a small religious community of Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and they live by a strict and simple code which forbids outward shows of joy such as dancing and singing (unless to the Lord), and it is such a thing - the singing and dancing of a group of young girls in the wood - that is the start of a chain reaction of events which ultimately leads to the town's downfall Through greed, envy, and the need for self-preservation, thorough deception, guilt, and a genuine fear of both the unknown (The Devil) and those given the power to exorcise him and bring those culpable to justice. [ironically this play displays these people as more culpable in doing the Devil's work than those who are accused of it]. In so doing the people of Salem find themselves betraying each other and bringing about their own self-destruction.

When Miller wrote this allegory in the 1950s, America was undergoing a similar witch-hunt. As far as America was concerned, Communism was the enemy and there were communists and spies everywhere - even Miller himself was questioned and put under suspicion of being anti-American. The play is a direct response to that national insularism and xenophobia, which even today, in world terms, shows little signs of improvement. However, this is not a lecture, so allow me to return to the production.....

The opening scene was, for me, the worst and most cluttered and unclear I have ever seen it. Pre-recorded voices amplified over mimed evocations and ritual watched by far too many. However once Betty was lying in bed the narrative started to clear and the story unfold. However, I feel sure that she would have been covered and not left semi-naked - we were in a Puritan community after all.

This evening Reverend Parris was played by both Quinn Rowbottom and Luke Ferguson, whilst Betty, his daughter, made mute and immobile by her liasing with the Devil, was Megan Chadwick.
 Abigail Williams, Parris's niece, and slightly older and more worldly than Betty was, in her first scenes, handled with skill. The nuances of her intent and desire placed implacably. Again two people portrayed this character and so am uncertain which; but it was either Michela Riccardi or Scotia Corbett Fergusson. The second actress to play the role was also very good, but for me, the former held the edge.

Other performances of note in this very large cast play {and therefore simply cannot credit everyone}were, both John Proctors (Harrison Elmore and Connor Porter), John Hale (Aiden Burgess), Giles Corey (Owain Hughes), and Deputy Governor Danforth, given a rather high-handed superciliousness by Aaron Shaw.

Directed by Kevin Rowntree, the production was set at a good pace and the dynamics (especially in the court scene with the 'screaming girls') were excellent; the tempo, pitch and fervour created skilfully. I liked the idea of simple, wooden furniture to represent each scene, and these were brought in and out seamlessly. Good use of 'pictures' in the directing made it visually stimulating too. The cast clearly understood the text and their roles within it, but there did seem to be a lack of chemistry between them at times. Was this due to the constant changing of character I wonder.

All in all, sensibly and sensitively handled, and a hugely impressive and indeed enjoyable attempt at one of literatures most difficult, well-known and oft-performed masterpieces. 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/6/18

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