In a production of stunning intensity it’s the quiet moments that get you most. Into the middle of a raging argument in the Proctors’ kitchen come two silent, shell-shocked old men: their wives have been charged with witchcraft. We’ve met one of them earlier in the play – Rebecca Nurse, a kindly old woman of consummate wisdom; we, like the characters, realise this is the point of no return. It’s a moment of sickening terror, handled beautifully by the cast in Yaël Farber’s magnificent staging.
Arthur Miller’s haunting masterpiece about the Salem witch hunts is sadly never out of date. Written in response to the McCarthyite hysteria in 1950s America, it serves as a timeless warning about the power of paranoia. Farber, wisely, leaves it in its context: a hardworking, God-fearing, rural 17th-century community (only the accents shift, to northern England). Staged, simply, in the round, the play fuses the particular with the parable. Clothes are durable and monochrome; furniture is simple and sparse; interiors are intimate and domestic. There is, significantly, nothing special about this place. A teenage girl fakes a faint to avoid awkward questions about dancing in the woods; her father, a preacher given to hellfire sermons, mentions witchcraft; her friend, sharp, scheming Abigail (played with sullen spite by Samantha Colley), spots an opportunity to play with fire – and we’re off. Soon neighbour is trading neighbour as witch: it’s sell, or be sold.
Miller’s genius is to show the way personal grief, guilt or greed feed into hysteria. His agent on stage is John Proctor, a decent man, who, riven with guilt over his brief affair with Abigail, knows her well enough to spot her intentions. Richard Armitage’s Proctor is a gruff, bearlike individual, tormented by his slip from grace and movingly matched by Anna Madeley as his wife, frozen in hurt. Their personal journey towards mutual forgiveness pulls against the gathering darkness elsewhere and proves very moving here.
In a fine ensemble, there are some superb performances: Adrian Schiller as the minister who gradually realises the horror he has unleashed; Jack Ellis as the fanatical judge who would rather hang more innocent people than admit a mistake; Ann Firbank as the quietly sane Rebecca Nurse.
There are flaws that hold the staging back. Farber gilds the lily, adding unnecessary wordless passages and hitting overdrive in places: sometimes quiet threats are more potent than roaring. But she and her cast release the harrowing power of this brilliant play.