Oh what a boring witch hunt

The Crucible | Mercury Theatre, Colchester
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The Independent Culture

Is it true that The Crucible, as one critic claims on the Mercury Theatre poster, is the best American play of the 20th century? Not even if you've ruled out The Glass Menagerie, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Long Day's Journey into Night, any of which has more truth and beauty in 15 minutes than Arthur Miller's ponderous piety has in 150. Even such a narrow work as Glengarry Glen Ross tells us more about who we are (as opposed to how we'd like to see ourselves), and crackles, as Miller's play does not, with the real and racy accents of American speech.

Is it true that The Crucible, as one critic claims on the Mercury Theatre poster, is the best American play of the 20th century? Not even if you've ruled out The Glass Menagerie, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Long Day's Journey into Night, any of which has more truth and beauty in 15 minutes than Arthur Miller's ponderous piety has in 150. Even such a narrow work as Glengarry Glen Ross tells us more about who we are (as opposed to how we'd like to see ourselves), and crackles, as Miller's play does not, with the real and racy accents of American speech.

Strangely, Miller has also escaped the attention of feminists, despite his division of women into those who ruin a man by not giving him enough sex, and those who ruin him with too much. Both types plague John Proctor, who is hanged for defying the witch-hunters of 17th-century Massachusetts. Proctor's virtue is his own (his widow proclaims tearfully, "He have his goodness now"), but his troubles are brought on by a mischief-maker and a sourpuss. After a difficult childbirth, his wife is for several months too ill for sex, so how can he be blamed for having it off with their maid? When Mrs P discovers the affair, not only does she sack the maid, she resents and withdraws from her husband! "How dare you judge me!" thunders John, whose adultery, he says, is the only wrong thing he has ever done.

The maid, plotting to dispose of the wife, accuses her, among others, of witchcraft, but Honest John is also sucked under by the rising tide of hysteria. Before his execution, John, now a dead ringer for Raskolnikov, hears a confession from his wife. Not only has she recently shirked her marital duties - it seems she never gave him what he wanted ("It was a cold house I kept"). You don't have to be Andrea Dworkin to think it's a bit much to blame the Salem witch trials on one woman's failure to reach orgasm.

For all its weaknesses, The Crucible can be far more exciting than one would guess from Gregory Foly's production, in which only two actors deserve mention: Katharine Barker, who radiates sweetness and gentle charm, and Colin McCormack, the only man with a commanding presence and a rich, powerful voice (unfortunately, he plays the hanging judge).

Otherwise, the staging is awkward, and the acting is bereft of conviction and spontaneity. Rushing into a room full of people, one actor stops dead, then looks left and right in the manner of someone demonstrating pedestrian safety. When the maid, a girl half her size, and a black servant stand close together, shaking from head to foot as they shout out the names of the guilty, they look like the world's most peculiar back-up group.

The Norfolk accents of the cast reminded me of the last time I heard it from actors in Puritan dress. Talking to Benny Hill,who was in the stocks for being very naughty, a young girl somehow got on to the subject of taming wild animals. "Can you imagine me," she said, giggling, "Walking along with a bear be'ind?" I wouldn't trade the look on Benny's face for the entire text of The Crucible.

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