Simon Parsons believes that although Arthur Miller’s play draws no special modern parallels unlike its original with the McCarthy trials, it highlights of the combustible nature of religious fanaticism
Bristol Old Vic, King Street Bristol, BS1
On the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth and with a flurry of stage and radio performances of and about him, where better to perform his classic play of New England witch hunts than in the theatre that gave it a British premier in 1954?
Tom Morris’s production with audience, jury-like on stage, trapping the action and direct impassioned addresses to the auditorium, as well as use of house lights, not only draws in the audience to respond to the events, but also highlights the play’s title. The Salem of 1692 is shown to be a claustrophobic melting pot where religious puritanism, rivalries and historic grievances tragically ignite.
Robert Hopkins’s simple stage design with nightmarish woods pressing against the contrasting windows, that are flown in to represent the different settings, reinforces this oppressive atmosphere as does the encircling presence of the cast mumbling religious homilies in the opening act.
At the heart of the production looms Dean Lennox Kelly’s charismatic Scottish Proctor whose cathartic journey to moral self-enlightenment is emotionally charged and ennobling. Neve McIntosh as Elizabeth Proctor is a worthy partner, a determined, stoically heroic depiction.
Their troubled relationship is caught in moments of distance and silence so effective against the growing volume of personal and communal accusations.Rona Morison’s ginger-haired Abigail Williams adds sparks of intensity in both her dealings with Proctor and her synchronised direction of the other girls’ actions.
Unfortunately other performances do not always sit easily with the central characters’ depictions. Jeffery Kissoon epitomises this with his sweating, declamatory Deputy-Governor Danforth bordering on the melodramatic in an attempt to justify his blind fanaticism.
Tom Morris’s clear, impassioned production of Miller’s work draws no especial modern parallels unlike its original with the McCarthy trials, but highlights the combustible nature of self-righteous religious extremism combined with communal grievances and the intrusion of external forces.
In the end though we were left with a sense of a production best captured by a parting comment of an audience member that she “didn’t realise just how long the play was.” This is a production with promise that still has work to do to iron out some of the inconsistencies of performance styles.
Runs until November 7. Box office: (0117) 9877-877, bristololdvic.org.uk