Resurrection Blues, Old Vic, London <br/> The Crucible, RST, Stratford

Look away, Arthur...
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The Independent Culture

After the fall: James Fox and Neve Campbell in the 'feeble' 'Resurrection Blues'

Arthur Miller died just over a year ago, and this week two major UK productions of his work opened on consecutive nights: Resurrection Blues and The Crucible.

Resurrection Blues is his penultimate play, aired in the US in 2002 and now receiving its UK premiere using a redraft from the very last month of his life. This star-studded production also marks the veteran film director Robert Altman's West End theatre debut. Moreover, Resurrection Blues is arguably Miller's Crucible Mark II, centring on religious folks and crushing governors, an injudicious witch-hunt and the planned execution of a seemingly Godly prisoner. Only we're not in 17th-century Salem here, but rather an unnamed banana republic in modern-day South America.

General Felix Barriaux is a flailing little despot, paranoid about his sexual impotence and bent on capturing and (literally) crucifying an elusive rebel, known none-too-gloriously as Ralph. Barriaux says Ralph is a terrorist but he is popularly regarded as the Messiah reincarnated. A US TV company engineers a grotesque exclusive deal to film this guy dying on the cross, with the executive Skip L Cheeseboro anticipating huge advertising profits. Nonetheless, Barriaux's niece is Ralph's lover. Her intellectual father, Henri, is trying to halt the crucifixion, and Skip's director, Emily, is a mite shocked as well. Meanwhile, Ralph reportedly keeps lighting up and walking through jailhouse walls.

As you may have gleaned, this is more of a satirical comedy than The Crucible, and, alas, it is embarrassingly feeble. It really should have been allowed to rest in peace. Altman's production also, sadly, does Miller few favours. Standing around on the monumental plinths of an ancient mountain-top temple, the older members of his cast seem half-asleep or sorely under-rehearsed. In spite of his long film CV, James Fox is staggeringly wooden as Henri, delivering his speeches with all the tonal variety of morse code. And as Barriaux, the Oscar-winning Maximilian Schell has a certain comic charm when explosively tetchy, but patently struggles to even remember his lines.

The younger crew do inject some life into the proceedings, particularly Peter McDonald as a dippy-hippy disciple. But Matthew Modine, as Skip, goes for sheer drive, without satirical bite, and Jane Adams' Emily, after running about in moral horror, is bemusingly easily seduced by Schell. You can hardly move for martyr-figures in new plays at the moment and this one sheds little psychological light.

The great thrill is still The Crucible itself. Miller's classic from 50 years ago, revived by the RSC, offers a scorching performance from Iain Glen as John Proctor, the adulterous farmer caught up in New England's frenzied Puritan trials. One could pick small holes in Dominic Cooke's production, including a few dire accents. Some might also expect Elaine Cassidy's ring-leading Abigail Williams to loom larger, but Michelle Terry's terrified, bullied Mary Warren is remarkably harrowing and it's the wider picture of a whole society going wrong which is overwhelming here. This is an extraordinarily taut and horrifying play: a timelessly acute portrait of moral rectitude corrupted by self-interest, miscarriages of justice, and the whirlwind power of mass hysteria. Cooke has no need to underline this tragedy's contemporary reverberations concerning religious fundamentalism.

'Resurrection Blues': to 22 April, 0870 060 6628; 'The Crucible': to 18 March, 0870 609 1110