The Crucible, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Face to face with the truth
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The Independent Culture

It's almost impossible to conceive of a world where a new production of The Crucible would not be "timely", for the simple reason that Arthur Miller's classic play deals with the everlasting need for principled resistance to the forces of scaremongering conformity. But there are moments when it speaks with particular urgency. The fact that this is so now is corroborated by the Oscar-nominated movie Good Night, and Good Luck. Just as Miller used the Salem witch hysteria of the 1690s as a way of confronting McCarthyism, so George Clooney and gang use the McCarthyite Red scare as a way of tackling the erosion of civil liberties during the so-called War on Terror.

There are two main differences. One is that, in the movie, Ed Murrow's past only briefly impinges on the present, whereas the stand taken by Miller's whistleblower, John Proctor, is horribly complicated by the consequences of an ill-judged adulterous fling. The other is that The Crucible has a depth and amplitude that give its world a wider range of application. Dominic Cooke, director of the RSC's excellent new revival at Stratford, has said, in interview, "Its resonance is unfolding day by day. When we started rehearsals, we felt it was more a play about Bush and the response to September 11 and Guantanamo; now it feels like it's more about fundamentalism and the suppression of free speech."

But The Crucible can only be about other times and places by being first rooted in a particular place and time. Cooke's gripping and gutting production is sparely staged within V-shaped white walls that act as a constant surround, the changes of setting from private homes to meeting room to jail covered only by fervidly liturgical chants. At the back, there's a spooky thicket of bare trees, visually underlining Miller's point about this society's paranoia: "Very few Indians were converted, and Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil's last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand."

Cooke elects to start with a prelude that shows us outright the girls' nocturnal dancing and the voodoo rites that inflame curiosity and precipitate the crisis. You could argue that this pre-emptive view of the matter robs the opening scene of some of its tension and bewilderment. But the production is very good at evoking and pacing the unstoppable epidemic of delusion and bad faith that sweeps through the glasshouse society.

True, Abigail, Proctor's spurned ex-lover, could be a more unnerving mix of needy, screwed-up teenager and vindictive-woman-scorned than is conveyed by Elaine Cassidy and there's not enough sexual repression underlying the girls' copy-cat displays of demonic possession.

The adult world, though, is wonderfully portrayed by a cast who have strength in depth and just the right gnarled idiosyncracy. Clifford Rose as Francis Nurse and Trevor Peacock as Giles Corey bring a humane Shakespearean life into the proceedings inrelatively short but remarkably potent contributions. And the characters whose positions shift are finely delineated - for example, Robert Bowman's expertly-pitched Reverend Hale, who starts as a book-consulting swot of a witch-finder, then summons the nervy courage to admit he's wrong.

With stage presence to burn, Iain Glen is superlative at each stage of Proctor's anguished journey. A strapping figure in a leather coat and sweat-stained shirts, he conveys both the sturdy, rustic ordinariness of the character and his growing moral stature. You feel this Proctor truly could fall like a tempest on James Laurenson's coldly determined Danforth and his court, if part of him weren't so eaten up by guilt. Helen Schlesinger lends a quiet, compelling dignity to Elizabeth. When the battered, fettered Glen sinks to his knees and struggles between a longing for life and a desire to do right, the naked, un-sentimentalised agony of it breaks your heart. Essential viewing.

To 18 March (01789 403437)

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