The Crucible, Gielgud Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Arthur Miller's heroic account of the witch trials that convulsed colonial Massachusetts in the 1690s is, no question, a great play, and watching Dominic Cooke's intelligent, thrilling production for the RSC only enhanced my appreciation of that fact.

But Cooke also makes clear that it is a very particular kind of greatness - it lies in Miller's unerring analysis of the mechanisms of repression, the way it thrives on personal sins and divisions, rather than in the creation of believable, breathing characters. You respond to The Crucible because you recognise the situation and can easily detect parallels in our own time, just as Miller's original audience, 50 years ago, saw McCarthyism laid bare; but you don't feel imaginative sympathy with the people on stage.

At the beginning, lights come up on a forest of bare trees, flanked by tall white walls. Among the trees, girls dance in a not completely convincing simulacrum of wild abandon. When the Reverend Parris enters and the girls disperse, screaming, the two walls suddenly slam together, so that now the forest is shut out, only glimpsed through a window. Hildegard Bechtler's set provides a potent image of a Puritan society shutting out nature; but the deliberate sterility also enhances the sense of abstraction underlying Miller's writing.

This applies even to Iain Glen's charismatic John Proctor, the sceptical, self-reproaching farmer who is the play's moral focus. Proctor has slept with Abigail Williams (Elaine Cassidy, febrile and self-possessed), the chief accuser, so that his certainty of the immorality of the witch trials is undermined by an acute awareness of his own sinfulness - an awareness, too, that in arousing her capacity for spite, he may have begun this whole business. Glen captures well Proctor's moral growth, from touchy defensiveness to heroism to, finally, martyrdom. Helen Schlesinger, as his upright wife Elizabeth, is a perfect foil to this drama of self-doubt, but Miller doesn't make the character much more than a foil.

The most human performance comes from Robert Bowman as Reverend Hale, the intellectual minister whose scrupulousness at first lends the witch trials credibility, then forces him to stand against them. Bowman creates a very credible brand of decency, and so gives Hale far more moral weight than he usually has.

Two things make this production outstanding. One is the superb control that Cooke exercises over the pacing, so that the several climaxes - the outbursts of hysteria from the accusing children, Elizabeth's arrest, Proctor's final resort to honesty - are horribly tense and chilling. The other is the clarity he gives to a streak of mad poetry, utterly in keeping with the period, as in Hale's final plea for Proctor to save himself by a false confession - "Shall the dust praise him? Shall the worms declare his truth?"

To 17 June (0870 890 1105)