[Image By Jonathan Keenan]
By Arthur Miller
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Until 24 October, 2015
It is a very brave decision for the Royal Exchange to stage an in-the-round production the play when the Old Vic’s recent five-star revival proved such a huge hit, both in its sold-out in-house run and the subsequent worldwide cinema broadcasts, however its a decision that pays off, and this is yet another strong production of Miller’s masterful play.
Written at the height of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s Hollywood Blacklist in 1953, Miller’s Toy Award-winning play offers a partially fictionalised dramatisation of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Province of Massachusetts Bay during 1692 and 1693, mirroring the events of the contemporary time which saw the US government accuse and try over 150 industry professionals for their alleged Red Fascist beliefs and sympathy with the Communist Party.
Betty Parris lies in a trance after a childish game spins out of control, and accusations of witchcraft are quickly manipulated by those with something to gain. However, when false allegations reach fever pitch, the devout community of Salem descends into a cauldron of hysteria it can never return from.
It is perhaps unsurprisingly a searing drama which still packs a huge punch to this day, and with its clear focus on religion, social collapse, political paranoia and mass hysteria within a small, tight-knit community, Miller’s play still proves relevant to a contemporary, 21st Century audience.
Unfolding on a bare, raised stage, director Caroline Steinbeis’ minimalist, stripped-back production offers up a mostly strong and dynamic revival of the piece, however it does seem rather confused at times and lacking in clarity, not helped by the bizarre costume design and a mixed-bag of performances. If there is a reason behind the decision to dress half the cast in contemporary outdoorsy gear and half the cast in traditional, period gowns then I failed to spot it. Iron these few simple issues and it would easily elevate this from a good production to a great one.
Looking at the positives though, performances from the central characters are generally very strong indeed with standout performances from Jonjo O’Neill as John Proctor, Matti Houghton as Elizabeth Proctor, Peter Guinness as Governor Danforth, Tim Steed as Reverend Hale and Stephen Kennedy as Reverend Parris. Max Jones must also be praised for his technically impressive shallow basin set which offers up some simple, yet effective visual treats in the final act, as should Johanna Town for her atmospheric lighting design.
Running Time: 3 hours 10 minutes, including one 20-minute interval. (Act I + II: 90 minutes; Act III + IV: 80 minutes)
Final Performance at the Royal Exchange Theatre: Saturday 24 October, 2015.
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