Gielgud Theatre. Royal Shakespeare Company. Stratford-upon-Avon production, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, first performed February 2006; first performed at the Gielgud, March 29, 2006. Directed by Dominic Cooke, Associate Director, RSC. Stage design by Hildegard Bechtler. Stalls F-8, £37.00. 3 hrs.
A truly stunning, memorable production, faultlessly acted, brilliantly directed. I seldom use so many superlatives in a single sentence, but this production merits them and more. There is a true inexorability to the advancing action, and finally there seems to be no discoverable gap of any kind between script and production. If any inconsistency at all emerges, it has to do with the accents. A program note explains that the majority of the Puritans came to the New World from East Anglia, and their accent, notably different from what we recognize as “standard” English, was used as a sort of benchmark in this production. Inevitably, some characters sounded more East Anglian than others; of the rest, some tended more towards standard English, others toward standard American. But there were no noticeable lapses, and after ten or fifteen minutes one forgot all about dialect, so deeply drawn into the play were we already. It seems ironic that, however consciously Arthur Miller was attempting to write dialogue in a way that would reflect the actual speech of late seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, dwellers, it took an English company to come the closest toward approximating what he had in mind.
One aspect of Dominic Cooke’s brisk pace is to be found in the skill of the speakers at just-jumping line cues. Sometimes three actors seem to be speaking simultaneously, and yet can be distinctly understood. It is almost as if Cooke has contrived a musical score with a full range of dynamics indicated. I have seldom felt the kind of double consciousness I felt last night — of being fully absorbed in the dramatic action while simultaneously appreciating all that the director was doing with characterization, speech, movement, and clarification of the ongoing dramatic action to mount the play on the stage.
The casting is remarkably strong throughout, but especially so in the key roles. Iain Glen is all the playwright might have hoped for; he has a remarkable presence, a fine stature, a slightly gravelly voice but with a wide range of effects, and piercing eyes. And he is able to summon up from seemingly great depths that sine qua non of qualities of the Miller hero, a convincing and soul-stirring feeling of indignation. It was what moved and drove Willie Loman, and it is what moves and drives John Proctor, finally leading him to his death. His wife, Elizabeth Proctor, was winningly played by Helen Schlesinger, who embodied the requisite coldness of the character in the early part of the play in such a complex way as to make us think that other, better — or worse — circumstances might move her to overcome it. James Laurenson as Deputy-Governor Danforth made an unforgettable character, convinced down to his toes that he was conducting the greatest, most important inquiry of his life, out of a figure that, in less powerful hands, might have registered on us as no more than a monolithic representative of rigid, benighted authority. And Elaine Cassidy, an Irish actress of considerable promise, turned the role of Abigail Williams, part temptress, part self-seeking, ostensible innocent, into a calculating yet anxious risk-taker.
There was splendid acting on view as well from neophytes and old timers alike. Michelle Terry, in her debut season with the RSC and with a slim list of previous credits, played the role of Mary Warren, difficult and demanding for its sudden accelerations and shifts of tone, with conviction and aplomb. As the Reverend John Hale, Robert Bowman gave us the full range of guilt-ridden humanity in a character that serves as a sort of thematic surrogate for Miller, beginning with cocksure authority and, later, in Act III, having walked out on Danforth’s proceedings in the middle of the play, returning and attempting to atone for his own small-scale crimes against humanity by persuading condemned sufferers to lie their way to reprieve by confessing their crimes. It is directly against Hale’s urgings to seize his life at whatever cost to his self-esteem that set up the final moment in which Proctor tears up his written confession and, in a statement that rings with the tones of final self-assertion that have marked tragic heroes from Richard II and the Duchess of Malfi (“I am Duchess of Malfi still”), declares, “I am John Proctor.” That same final accession of integrity is achieved offstage by Giles Cary, who reportedly calls for “more weight” as his executioners pile stone after stone upon his chest to force a “Yea” or “Nay.” Played on stage by Trevor Peacock, he has a rugged authenticity and a canniness that I myself would label “Yankee“ and that makes the story of his refusal to give in to his tormentors completely believable after the fact.
Other strong presences: Darlene Johnson as the wise Rebecca Nurse, resigned to the folly of those in authority, and Clifford Rose, a founding member of the RSC, as Rebecca’s bewildered, aged husband Francis Nurse; and John Stahl as Judge Hathorn (surprisingly, his name is pronounced “HAthorn”).
The setting was brilliantly functional. High walls open, at the beginning of the play, on an upstage copse of woods, with trees close enough together to be difficult to walk through and entwined at the top like briars, grown to a height of some twenty-five feet. It is here that a group of young Salem girls are dancing, along with the Barbados cook, Tituba, who beats time on an empty pot. As they are frightened off by the arrival of the Reverend Parris (well played by Ian Gelder), the walls close together to form the upper corner of a large room; panels in the wall then open or close, through the course of the play, to help represent the series of sparely furnished interior locations in which the action progresses. Then, at the very end, as John Proctor is led off to be hanged, through a door at the joint of the walls, and as we see the tree trunks of the copse through it, the walls summarily open up, and in the cold light of morning we view the full copse again, bereft of humanity. It is a chilling ending to a great production of what I now regard as one of Miller’s two best plays.
Long ago, this play transcended the specifics of its origins, at the time of the McCarthy hearings under the aegis of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Christopher Bigsby’s program note serves to remind us of those origins — and serves perhaps also as an implicit hint that other, perhaps equally compelling analogies were to be found in the current world situation and specifically in George Bush’s Iraq war and the wider “war on terror.” Let those who want to pursue such connections pursue them. Whatever this play may foster in the way of excursive parallels, its larger meanings have an independent, and wholly absorbing, vitality.