Arthur Miller’s tale of the Salem witch trials, a subtle yet forceful allegory for the McCarthyism that persecuted him in the 1950s, is an ambitious choice for a student production, but Curve’s in-house co-production with De Montfort University is a strong and unflinching effort that goes a long way towards meeting the challenge.
Comprised entirely of university-age Drama students, the cast was never likely to nail every one of Miller’s lengthy lines perfectly. What results is a production with a fairly obvious split in the cast, between those who enunciate every syllable unfalteringly (admirably enough, for reasons we’ll get into later), and those who dive head-first into the frenzied emotion of their roles. The latter bring Miller’s words to life at the expense of a few fluffed lines, while the former are mostly clear as day, but leave some of the story behind on the page.
Ransford Boi, as John Proctor, is firmly in the emotional camp. His is a fiery and gripping performance, surging through a torturous soul-searching journey. That he garbles a couple of sentences over the space of two and a half hours is entirely forgivable – it stands out next to some of his castmates’ perfect recital, but it also speaks of the desperate humanity that Proctor is meant to have literally and represent allegorically.
Naana Boaten’s Abigail Williams is similarly fraught and effective, with her character’s shades of grey skilfully represented and keeping the audience guessing. Savannah Royal as Tituba and Hannah Gooden as Rebecca Nurse only have one major scene each to get their teeth into, but both have an immediacy that drives the story forward at vital points. Rory Gillan’s performance as the self-assured but crumbling Giles Corey is also superb, granting heartfelt impact to his character’s off-stage fate.
The Crucible’s journey hinged on the only two actors on the fence of the divide in the cast – Eleanor Page as Elizabeth Proctor, and Lewis Wolverson as Reverend John Hale, both of whom trod on the side of slightly dry script-reading at times. They grow into their roles, though, with Page in particular gradually bringing out a wonderfully-measured sadness in her voice. Pleasingly, their work together in the climactic scene is note-perfect.
The most glaring flaw with the production is one of the less forgivable. Even in the fourth row, some of Miller’s wordier lines are lost when actors turned away or the climactic scores grew louder. One would assume the attraction of collaborating with Curve is access to theatre-quality production, and DMU would be within their rights to feel let down by the lack of something as simple as microphones. It makes it clear why some of the cast go heavy on the consonants at the expense of feeling, as some of the more involved delivery is hard to catch at all. Hannah Youles’ performance particularly suffers from this, the clear effort she pours into Mary Warren’s fear of the court and the witchcraft accused of her sadly falling to the floor at the very front of the audience. It’s not her fault, and it’s a shame.
Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie’s direction largely seems to take a back seat and let the actors and Miller’s script tell its story, which is sensible and works well. Her obvious stylistic choice is to use the cruciform-cut-out staging to allow characters to peer from height into other scenes, which is of mixed effectiveness – when they’re gazing blankly at the back of the room, it’s a distracting affectation, but when they’re looking down on the unfolding events, the metaphor of hearsay and rumour as the almighty judge comes to life, and it suddenly seems very clever.
DMU and Curve’s The Cruciblepunches above its weight and shows ambition and skill beyond its youth, doing humble justice to its script and subject. The imperfections it has are fleeting, and its high points bring out every bit of righteous vitality the play has.
The Crucible runs in the Studio at Curve until Saturday 5thMay, with matinee and evening performances