Jun 28, 2013

REVIEW: The Crucible | Southbank Theatre, Melbourne

The Crucible is not funny. Yet the opening night audience laughed their way through all four painful acts of Melbourne Theatre Company's take on the previously unwreckable Arthur Miller classic.

Byron Bache

Wires and Lights blogger and Curtain Call Melbourne critic

“The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone,” Reverend John Hale trembles early on in the first act of The Crucible. And last night, as the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production of Arthur Miller’s previously unwreckable masterpiece fell with a damp thwack onto the stage of the Southbank Theatre, the marks of his presence were practically bleeding from the walls.

In just under three hours, I saw Paul English with the devil, I saw Grant Cartwright with the devil and I saw Greg Stone with the devil. I saw Heather Bolton with the devil, I saw Elizabeth Nabben with the devil, and I saw Brian Lipson lumbering around the stage with the devil so enthusiastically that they looked like two halves of the same pantomime horse. I saw director Sam Strong stirring a cauldron that he’d filled not with beans, lentils and some stray frog like Tituba’s, but with shit.

The Crucible is written in a dialect — it’s right there on the page; yet Strong has the cast use their natural accents. When Naomi Rukavina as the slave Tituba delivers her lines — written in the syntax and accent of the character’s native Barbados — with rounded Melbourne vowel sounds, the last vestiges of hope leave the theatre.

In Miller’s unimpeachable text, the town of Salem, Massachusetts unravels as the young girls fling accusations of witchcraft first at one another, and then at anyone who dares vex them, until half the town is locked up and awaiting trial. In Strong’s version of the play, people shout. There is nothing about this production that works. Every single actor on the stage is playing in a different direction, something only made worse by the unrelenting ocker abuse of Miller’s once-dazzling words. Miller wrote The Crucible as a sort-of allegory for McCarthyism, but it never really plays like that. Here, Strong executes the theme with the all the subtlety of Animal Farm, and all the quiet elegance of a velociraptor.

The Crucible should be terrifying. There should be menace from curtain to curtain. This is a town full of people frightened that they’ll be the next to be accused of an invisible, impossible-to-disprove crime. The fear should be palpable, but it’s simply not there. The actors never seem to accept the premise of the play, so it’s nigh on impossible for the audience to.

One of the many surprising ways Strong attempts to kill the play is through blocking: nobody moves. The whole thing is staged so unimaginatively that all these characters do is stand still, arms by their sides, and talk at each other. You could be forgiven for thinking they all rehearsed separately, coming together for the first time only last night. And indeed, you could forgive them had this been the case.

The Crucible is not funny. With the arguable exception of one of John Proctor’s lines, it contains no jokes. Yet the audience last night laughed through all four acts. It’s not surprising given David Wenham, playing Proctor, is a joke. Wenham somehow looks and sounds like he’s never tread the boards before. All of his lines are delivered in the same up-down-up-down inflection, and the full extent of his physical participation in the action of the play is to occasionally put his hands on his hips like a Disney prince.

The audience didn’t buy his schtick for a moment, and spent the climax of the third act, a soliloquy for Proctor, in hysterics at the pompous nonsense Wenham offered up as he pranced around the stage. Wenham’s performance is pathetic, lazy and blank. And it’s matched note for note by his ill-fitting wig, which seemed to fall apart during the final scenes. It’s worth noting, too, that after being chained up for weeks against the wall of the prison during the fourth act, Wenham’s Proctor is still clean shaven.

As Reverend Parris, Greg Stone swings wildly between over-enunciating and mumbling, before finally settling on an odd mixture of the two. As Abigail Williams, the spurned young girl who started it all, Elizabeth Nabben screeches and seethes with a blank look on her face, not a hint of vulnerability or fear in her eyes, turning Abigail into a boring storybook villain; the one thing she’s definitely not. Grant Cartwright is lumbered with a comically awful wig as Reverend John Hale, and his performance would be fine in a production where even one of the other actors was attempting to strike the same tone as him, but in this collage of crap, his line readings are arch and silly. Brian Lipson, as deputy governor Danforth, chews scenery as though he hasn’t eaten since rehearsals began, and James Wardlaw plays Ezekiel Cheever as though he’s a character in a university revue, actively seeking laughs from the audience.

Every cloud has a silver lining. And every poo has a little bit of corn you could wash off and eat if you really needed to. Here, that kernel is Anita Hegh, who is the only good thing on a stage full of actors who — with the exception of Wenham — clearly know they’re dying. Hegh’s turn as Elizabeth Proctor is subtle, nuanced and graceful; she even manages to make the Australian accent work. But watching her play opposite dead-eyed deadpan Diver Dan, giving her all and getting nothing back, is heartbreaking.

Dale Ferguson’s deconstructed farmhouse set is great, but it doesn’t matter. His costumes for the women are stellar, too. His costumes for the men look like he raided the set of Blackadder and set about shredding things. Paul Jackson’s lighting is clever, but again it doesn’t matter. Kelly Ryall’s score might have done something to repair some of Strong’s damage, but it only happened during the act breaks.

On Broadway, a production like this would close in previews; here, thanks to the wonder of subsidised theatre, an audience in the tens of thousands will giggle their way through this 17th-century hell.

Strong has failed his cast and failed his audience. The only thing worse than sitting through all four excruciating acts of The Crucible is watching the cast’s faces during their curtain call. They know. Save yourself the heartbreak.

The details: The Crucible plays the Southbank Theatre until August 3. Tickets on the MTC website.

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10 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Crucible | Southbank Theatre, Melbourne

  1. Alexandra Dunwill

    ‘The Crucible’ still works in spite of the MTC production faults.

    Defying the critics, the MTC production of ‘The Crucible’ has been a success at least when I attended the play few days ago. The audience clapped at the end of the Act 2 (before the interval) and the appreciation was even greater at the end when clapping was reinforced by enthusiastic vocal applause. The audience obviously was pleased if not impressed.

    So why are the reviews so scathing?

    To start, this production of the Crucible emphasizes comedic and farcical elements of the play and downplays the tragedy. Some critics see it as breaking the sacrosanct tradition and offending the purity of style – ‘The Crucible’ meant to be a tragedy.

    Secondly, according to some reviewers, the play is dull and unimaginative and the acting is flat.

    Yes, it could be a much more entrancing spectacle. For many the potential to create visually exciting, scary, erotic, horrific and emotional melting pot, (“the crucible of emotions”) was not realized. The play indeed seemed one-dimensional and flat.

    So why do the audiences like it?

    In my view, the austerity of the production was deliberate. After all the play is based on the events that took place in the puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in Salem.
    Emphasizing the comedic and farcical aspects of the script also makes sense when we consider that the interpretation of the play changes with the audience and time.

    For the contemporary western audiences the stupidity of 17 century witches’ trials seem completely anachronistic, the accusations bizarre, the court process absurd. Rather than to scare and disturb us, its ridiculousness makes us laugh so why not enhance it for grater entertainment?

    To contemporary western audiences the play has a contemporary meaning. It reflects the reality and the soap-operatic atmosphere of current social and political setting, the verbal assassinations and the climate of disloyalty and self – interest of our political and social arena. What the audiences see and appreciate is the actuality of the themes. The play is no longer an allegory of the communist trials of the 1950s in the USA or a story about the witches’ trials in Salem; it becomes a reflection of our current political and social reality where the language of persuasion frequently replaces the language of logic, where the opportunism replaces loyalty, and the universal ethical values such as honesty and truth are questioned in favor of “down to earth” pragmatism.

    Still, the fundamental aim of classis tragedy is preserved. The reality of the human suffering and real emotions, shown beautifully through the silent scene between John and Elizabeth Proctor, hits us hard. In the end we feel somehow uneasy about the ethics defying pragmatism that justifies our not always most ethical behavior and we embrace the goodness of the tragic hero who rises above his human weakness to stand up for the highest values of honesty, loyalty and courage.
    The audience gets the message, gets the insight and experiences catharsis.
    Most patrons leave the theatre feeling somehow better, cleaner, stronger. And we like this feeling.
    It is, in my view, the strength of Miller’s writing, the simple, almost classical structure and the relevance of his message, emphasized by this ascetic production that makes the MTC play successful.

  2. Kasia Kaczmarek

    I quoted you and linked to your review in my response to the show. Hope that’s ok!

  3. illywhacker

    I might have taken this review seriously were it not infected with a classic case of cultural cringe.

  4. Rogue Vibe

    I saw this play in its fourth preview, and I’m sorry to say my audience also chortled along happily. Every time they could see that Proctor’s situation was getting worse, there were happy, vacuous bursts of laughter (to quote Fitzgerald). Of course, we’re so far above all the childishness that we deserve a little giggle, right?

    I’d like to put forward that while Wenham was indeed disappointing and the production a bit sterile, I’m worried that we as theatregoers have become morally complacent. The play didn’t chill me to the bone, it didn’t move me, but perhaps that’s because I was one of several hundred well-dressed, affluent Melbournites.

    I saw this tale of the Salem witch hunts as the Labor party voted and ousted Julia Gillard. Sure, the production wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but it wasn’t shit. To say that suggests to me that as a reviewer you have no respect for the artists involved. I’m wondering whether the production is better executed and more relevant than you give it credit.

  5. Locutius

    I saw a very similar effort staged in Brisbane a number of years ago and was very disappointed. The only line that sent a tingle up my spine was Proctor’s anguished lament “Because it is my Name!” but I get a tingle just thinking of that line in my head so no credit to the actor is required. Thanks for the review, I would not wish the same disappointment to be revisited for one of the finest plays written.

  6. Sharmini Kumar

    @Byron Thanks for a gracious and diplomatic response to an emotional outburst at midnight 🙂

  7. Byron Bache

    @Sharmini: Don’t feel stupid. If you liked it, you liked it, and a review shouldn’t change that. I’m really pleased that you got more from it than I did. The text itself is incredibly powerful. And to be fair, it’s live theatre: every night will be different; by design you saw a different show to the one I did, simply by seeing it on a different night.

  8. Sharmini Kumar

    I’m afraid I have to disagree.
    I just came back from this play, which I had bought tickets for some time ago and was kind of regretting after reading this review.
    I thought the minimalist staging really foregrounded the text which has so much applicability to so many situations that trying to make it a parable of any one thing is a disservice.
    I heard laughter, but only when there were references to witchcraft that are so strange to modern ears and the hypocrisy so obvious to us that I cannot think of a way to play those lines that could be taken seriously. (The play would have a very different meaning in a place like PNG, where violence against accused witches still occurs.)
    I guess there are people reading my defence who would say I’m a naive and unsophisticated playgoer… I do feel stupid disagreeing with both Crikey and the Guardian about this play, but it shattered me. It felt like, in those 2.5 hours, I grieved for witch burnings in Salem and PNG, for the many abuses of clerical power by clergy, for secret ASIO assessments, for torture and forced confessions. Leaving the text to speak for itself dragged all that out of me.
    Not everyone will agree. I get that. I just wanted to put another opinion out there.

  9. Hamish Jones

    Good review!

    I would however take slight issue with the notion that this production only went ahead because of MTC’s Government subsidy. The company receives only about 9% of it’s total income from state and federal sources and with over 60% coming from the box office – if this production bombs it will still hurt them a great deal. Subsidy may offer some protection, but you can certainly argue that said support allows the company(s) to be more experimental and risk taking in their programming, allowing for the inevitable failures that will follow. This production just looks like self indulgent crap.

  10. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Come on, tell us what you really think!

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