Once or twice during director Ian Rickson’s wordless prologue and the first scene of a girls’ boarding school’s “sewing and elocution hour”, I was worried that he was so overemphasising the pubescent girls’ awakening sexual impulses that the evening might turn into The Devils.
This proved unfounded. The more apt comparison is with passages of collective frenzy in The Crucible, especially once the plot gathers momentum. In Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama, as in Arthur Miller’s two decades later, scandalous accusations are made against innocent parties for motives of petty revenge, are maintained by the young female accuser manipulating her fellows and are seized upon by a credulous community.
Miller used claims of witchcraft as a metaphor for McCarthyite persecutions; Hellman (who would herself be no stranger to the House Un-American Activities Committee) centres her plot on allegations that the two schoolmistresses are lovers. In each case, the subject matter becomes less dramatically vital than the pathology of the lie and the resultant hounding.
Rickson’s cast boasts three generations of international screen names. As the grandmother of young accuser Mary (Bryony Hannah as a gymslip Iago), Ellen Burstyn is every inch the grande dame; as the ageing-actress aunt of one of the central pair, whose unguarded words are twisted into calumny, Carol Kane loses no opportunity to be daffy, chiffon scarf-waving and all. And at the centre of things are Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss.
As regards Knightley, we critics might learn from our treatment of Kevin Spacey in his first years at the artistic helm of The Old Vic: we constantly questioned his dedication, but he persevered and showed how overeager we had been to belittle his commitment. Similarly, Knightley follows up her debut on this stage just over a year ago in The Misanthrope with another performance that shows diligence, intelligence and subtlety. She just has the edge on Moss, who is at isolated moments prey to the screen actor’s affliction when onstage of overcompensating by making gestures or expressions too broad.
Knightley, however, plausibly plays a character slightly older than herself, and finds truth in unexpected places, such as by going physically gawky from grief in the final minutes. Hellman’s play is over-reliant on narrative convenience, but disguises it well, and Rickson’s production does it proud.