THE Old Vic’s version of The Crucible, due to be sccreened soon in Irish cinemas, grabs you by the throat. Arthur Miller’s timeless classic was inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists in 1950s America but is set amidst the hysteria of the 1692 Salem witch trials in New England.
At its core, it picks apart the marriage of the Proctors, while looking at the way in which fear of the supernatural, intolerance and paranoia can rent a community apart.
“There are resonances for the play across history,” says Anna Madeley, who plays Elizabeth Proctor. “There are events in the past that you can look to and see the same patterns of human behaviour. We might understand them a bit better but they still happen. People haven’t changed that much. Miller really tapped into ways of behaviour that are true to all people.
“If you’ve spent time thinking about the Holocaust, for example, where certain people have been picked out to be the problem — if you can get rid of those, everything will be all right. It’s fascinating these witch hunts happened in Salem and many people died. They were executed. There are moments in The Crucible you could find in lots of places.”
Madeley has a hand in many of British theatre’s finest productions over the last decade. Her film credits include Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges alongside Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. In The Crucible, her character is often pigeonholed as the reserved, frigid wife of John Proctor, played in this production by The Hobbit movies’ star, Richard Armitage. He berates her because “an everlasting funeral marches round your heart”, but there are nuances to her plight.
“You meet her as a woman who is trying to make her marriage work after her husband’s infidelity,” says Madeley. “There is genuine love. What’s fascinating about her journey being accused of witchcraft is she didn’t sit back and blame those around her. She found the wisdom to find out what she could control. The journey of the play, the time she spends in prison, makes her sit and think about that. “Who am I? What is integrity? How do I want to behave in this situation?’
“She can’t change the situation around her, but she can decide what is at one with her conscience. That’s what she gives to John as well when she says: ‘You have to decide who you are?’ It would have been easy to throw blame around and be angry about his infidelity, but she’s beyond all of that.”
The acclaimed South African director Yaël Farber is at the helm of The Crucible. Madeley notes it’s the only professional theatre production she has worked on in which every word of the text went untouched. The play’s haunting soundscore is especially arresting, as is the light it casts on how difficult life was in the 17th century. “This community, everything they have they’ve made themselves,” says Madeley. “Their food is home-grown. Their furniture is homemade. They needed to be strict. They policed each other quite heavily in order to keep the community working. For success as a whole, everybody needed to contribute. It’s quite different to how we live now.
“Outside the forest are the Indians. [The character] Abigail’s parents have been killed. They are very dependent on each other. The moment of the play is the point in which the community is at its most stable and safe, and that’s the point at which people start to question authority –then it starts to break down.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved