Based on Arthur Miller’s Crucible and set in the eerie 17th century of the Salem witch trials, director Sara Malik successfully re-creates the unnerving and sinister atmosphere, which saw the brutal persecution of many innocent people accused of witchcraft. This is especially done through haunting video montages and skilful lighting. The performers are also very compelling, from the group of possessed girls accused of witchcraft to the Proctor couple’s tumultuous relationship, their sustained characterizations made the show an intense and absorbing experience. Laden with meaning, the performance is open to interpretation; while it can be seen to project modern day islamophobia, it can also be perceived as injustice in our society.
The film set-up and the lighting are central to creating a gripping sense of urgency and paranoia. The play begins with black and white, brief clips of the girls dancing wildly, freely, crazily, giving the spectator some context of what they will be accused of, but also setting an exciting but threatening tempo to the next scene reminiscent of those found in horror movie trailers. These clips, reappearing throughout the play to further build tension between the acts, are particularly haunting because projected on three screens, which become the walls of the stage. The actors and the spectators are then trapped in the young women’s unwavering gazes or hellish dancing, depending on what is projected.
When the film ends, lighting is used to create an environment of secrecy, doubt, and deceit. The stage is often left in an unsettling semi-darkness, illuminated only at precise angles, which allows long, dark shadows to fill it. The performance also uses lighting to obscure actors in an attempt to physically or orally evade another character, or they are placed deliberately in the light. At one point, Proctor moves into the harsh light as he waits for his wife’s response after admitting to adultery, this emphasized his stark anguish.
Magnus Gordon and Katie Michaels make a touching Proctor couple, able to convincingly portray the different changes their relationship goes through, from tense and distrusting, to supportive and caring. They also do great on their own; Gordon gives the audience an emotionally and morally strained Proctor, who manages to stay determined and true to himself despite physical and mental hardship, and many lines. Michaels creates a steadfast, powerful woman, most obvious when she confidently delivers the line ‘I cannot think the Devil may own a woman’s soul, Mr. Hale, when she keeps an upright way’, calmly fighting for her name, in contrast with her husband’s violent, desperate attacks on their maid Mary. Issy Glenton’s anguished cries and sobs at being pressured by all sides to tell a certain version of the truth strikingly convey the severity of her predicament.
Indeed, she is faced by a chorus of possessed girls who are accusing anyone who accused them of witchcraft, and who do an eerily good job at spooking the audience as well as the court. We understand why a jury of adult men are taken in by a group of ‘children’; in the moment where their screams reach their shrillest, and the music climbs to its most thrilling, I was taken in too, and chills ran through me.
I was also convinced by the actors playing the old characters; their slowed speech and careful movements made them the most life-like aged people I have seen in student plays. This sort of sustained realistic detail is present throughout the play and give all the characters flesh, even when they are not speaking; a tense bare foot curling, a hand playing with its shadow against the wall, a pregnant body slowly lifting its weight from a chair. The set and costumes are also precisely designed: minimal, but signifying subtly for the epoch, for the past: an ornate, aged side table, a dress, the earthen kitchenware.
These small but powerful details are also present in the black and white clips. They help the narrative unfold, as they depict the possessed girls having their veils torn from their head. Their reactions go from resigned, to bothered, to threateningly angered at this brutal attack on their innocence and maybe even, their religion. These clips are slowly mixed with more and more footage of the riots, crowds silently standing with their hands up. I think this is a gentle way of teasing in new ideas, which might be unexpected at first, but not jarring. The intrigued audience is forced to think about how witch hunts, and perhaps more relevantly, McCarthyism, links to racial violence. Thus, the Crucible, more than just a severe trial, fulfils its role as a vessel for the fusing of new ideas.