The Crucible, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

By Lynne Walker
Friday 13 February 2004 01:00

Salem comes to Sheffield and the theatre space of The Crucible seems too bare and revealing for Arthur Miller's claustrophobic dramatic parable of the same name. After all a crucible is meant to contain material heated up to the highest temperature, melted down and purified. Yet the very openness of the simple staging only highlights the tightening of the noose, the agony of accountability and the burning issues at stake in The Crucible.

Anna Mackmin's intelligent production does full justice to Miller's terrifyingly timeless recreation of a reign of terror and abuse of power, dating back to the late 17th century but repeated throughout history. The effective bleached wood set, by the designer, Lez Brotherston, is laid over rough, furrowed earth, matching the rustic feel to some of Miller's language.

The whitewashed walls and pulpit, the scudding clouds and the bare outer courtroom contrast vividly with the dark complexities unfolding in the hearts and minds of a community afflicted with madness. The muttering of psalms buzzes around the opening scene like a plague of flies. "Crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom" all right and, just as sinisterly as they surely did in the witchcraft trials in Massachusetts in 1692, or the hunt for Reds in Fifties America, events unfold with an awful inevitability. In Miller's account, however, they are also given a deeply compelling eloquence.

Standing out from the striking but stiflingly repressive black and white Puritan costumes of accused and accusers, Giles Corey and John Proctor are dressed in brown. As Proctor, Douglas Henshall is marked out as different by his Scottish accent (the one so favoured in voice-overs, by call centres and for insurance commercials). From the striding man of the land, with his gun firmly to hand, Henshall's reduction to tortured soul, desolate wreck and - having won a hard-fought battle with his conscience - ultimately condemned prisoner, evokes compassion. So too does the plight of his upright wife, Elizabeth, given a steely portrayal by Amelia Bullmore.

The root of all the trouble, Abigail Williams, is played by the promising newcomer Sinead Matthews, exuding a mixture of grown-up airs and awareness and a teenage rebelliousness - "where she walks, the crowd will part like the sea of Israel" - that so disturbs Elizabeth Proctor. As the Reverend Parris, John Dougall is horribly realistic in his ruthless self-centredness, though his words are occasionally as hard to comprehend as his motives. Here, as in Ian Bartholomew's viperous Deputy-Governor Danforth, you can smell the danger of small men holding big office.

To 28 February (0114-249 6000)

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