The Crucible: Re-staging a classic for the 21st century

Arguably the most prolific of Arthur Miller’s works, The Crucible has become and English class staple. I’ve both read it and seen it performed, as has a large majority of high school students across the country.

This Tony season, The Crucible is one of two Arthur Miller works produced and nominated (A View From The Bridge is the other). Both are undertaken by director Ivo Van Hove, a first time Tony nominee. The trend this awards season has seen revivals earning significantly less nominations than the original productions, but The Crucible has proved an exception to this rule. The original production only garnered 2 nominations, but this production has received 4.

With such an iconic story, how did Van Hove bring The Crucible into the 21st century? The simple answer is by keying up the metaphors and scaling down the period accuracy.

As someone who is generally skeptical of “modernized” productions, this revival of The Crucible turned the notion of watered down and palatable modernization on its head. Anyone who is familiar with the recent cinematic release of The Witch knows that the horror isn’t in the thing that jumps out at you from the shadows, it’s the thing that you can’t see at all.

Even from looking at production photos, it’s clear that Van Hove took the historical accuracy of stage and costume design in the opposite direction. The cast is clad in monochrome clothing, suggesting something between a dystopian future and the modern era. The set is much the same, the only clear difference being the wall (and “chalkboard”) used for projections.

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What I believe Van Hove aims to do in stripping down the production is to draw attention to the central conflict rather than let the audience be lost in the setting of Salem. The Crucible was built as an allegory for the McCarthyism “red scare” trials, and this production reminds us of the habit of the human mind to mold it’s own with hunts.

By giving this simple lens, I received the message that this conflict could arise anywhere, and it has. From with trials, to the red scare, to the war on terror, a human’s greatest enemy is the unknown. The determination to make an enemy where there is not one is a horror story in itself, one that is reflected in the plight of Abigail Williams and the people of Salem.

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Saoirse Ronan makes her Broadway debut as Williams here, and Ben Wishaw stars as John Proctor, the protagonist. At first glance, the softness and gentle acting of Wishaw makes for a curious choice for the strong-willed farmer, but it proves to be a strong choice. Sophie Okenedo (nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Play) stars as Elizabeth Proctor, and the difference between Okenedo’s fierce Elizabeth and Wishaw’s John sheds new light on two characters turned archetypes.

John Proctor has long been played as the steadfast man, absolute in the face on conflict, his affair with Abigail Williams the one blight on his character. I appreciate Wishaw in this role for the simple fact that he plays Proctor as more complex than that. His resolution is quiet, and in this state, we’re able to see how his slip into temptation was possible. In contrast is Elizabeth, who Okenedo allows to be strong-willed without dipping into shrill stereotypes. I find myself understanding the divide between husband and wife with this characterization, and it makes their reconciliation deeper and more believable.

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I feel that what Van Hove has managed to do with The Crucible is to breathe life into an old classic, but without all of the tradition that may have weighed it down. Arthur Miller ensured his work would be timeless simply through the power of his writing, but this production of The Crucible has taken the plot out of time to remind the audience of the limits of human rationality and the honors of conviction.


 

The Crucible is also nominated for Best Lighting Design of a Play (Jan Versweyveld) and Best Featured Actor in a Play (Bill Camp).


 

MITM Musings: If you’re familiar with The Crucible, how would you take to a non-traditional production like this one? For better or worse, the modernization of works has become a massive trend in recent years- would you rather see more of this or just stick to the way the classics were produced?

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