When Arthur Miller's The Crucible first appeared in 1953, a number of commentators saw it primarily as a parable of the McCarthy era, and as such, they assumed it would not be an enduring theater piece. Time, of course, has proved them wrong.
Essentially there are two reasons why the play continues to be produced. The first is that the forces at work in the drama, sadly, seem always to be with us. The play is set in 1692 at the time of the Salem witch hunts, but the mass hysteria and religious fanaticism depicted in the play recur all too frequently. The second reason for the play's longevity is that in The Crucible Miller has fashioned a first-rate drama. The action is taut and full of breath-taking reversals, while the characters are vividly drawn.
Still, the play has been done so often that audiences tend to become blasé-until, that is, a particularly exciting new version comes along, which is exactly what has happened with the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre production. It began in Stratford and has now moved to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End.
Drawing on the RSC's deep reservoir of top-flight actors, director Dominic Cooke has put together a crackling production. Iain Glen is a forceful, engaging, energetic John Proctor, the all-too-human hero who is caught between Abigail (Elaine Cassidy), the young girl whom he spurned and who seeks revenge by skillfully creating the myth of witches in Salem's midst, and Elizabeth (Helen Schlesinger), his ever-faithful wife.
Proctor is also the man who stands up to the misguided religious authorities who send innocent people to their death. The latter range from the Reverends Hale and Parris (Robert Bowman and Ian Gelder) to Deputy Governor Danforth (James Laurenson), the most frightening of all because he is such a commanding presence and speaks with a voice that appears to come from on high.
The fierceness and vitality of the production ensure that we become immersed in the terrifying events as they unfold in long ago Salem, but are constantly reminded of how eerily, and unfortunately, they resonate today.