Friday, December 26, 2014

The Crucible

Photography by Seiya Taguchi

Sport For Jove present, THE CRUCIBLE, by Arthur Miller, as part of the 6th annual Sydney Hills Shakespeare in the Park and Leura Shakespeare Festival, at Bella Vista Farm. December 5 - 30. January 10 -25, at Leura Everglades.

From THE CRUCIBLE:
But you must understand, Sir, that a man is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, a precise time - we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not the light will surely praise it. I hope that you be one of those. (Act Three. Danforth)
Sitting in the old wooden 'barn', one of the heritage buildings, situated on the farm of Bella Vista, it was an enthralling experience to watch Sport For Jove's atmospheric production of Arthur Miller's great play, THE CRUCIBLE (1953). But, it was with the above speech given by the character, Deputy Governor Danforth, overseer to the trials in Salem of 1692, that one was jolted (I was) out of the relatively safe theatrical mode of watching a contrived 'faction' unravel at a literary distance, and to have one's heart quickened to a sense of the relevance of this work, a work living in this company of  actors, in our very presence, wracking our every sense with titanic contemporary parallels, compounding for most of us, after the Martin Place siege, and the recent release of the CIA torture documents in the USA, the dread of living in our own days, in 2014. This production, Directed by Damien Ryan, realises the mighty potential of this formidable monument of Dramatic Literature, and shakes us to the core of our morality, our recently heightened knowledge of our own mortality, to challenge us, with speed, to examine our ethical beliefs, and how they fit our daily actions.

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller, written after a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, and his reading of the archive records of the witch-hunt, seemed to have found the parallels that were eerily precise to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), happening at the time in Washington. From Christopher Bigsby's biography called ARTHUR MILLER:
In both 1692 and 1952 confession and betrayal were the necessary price for inclusion in the body politic. The purging of supposed private guilt was a required public gesture. The Devil was abroad, and salvation lay in informing. Friends and neighbours were to offer one another up if their own innocence was to be affirmed." [1] 
The parallels drawn in Marion Starkey's book, THE DEVIL IN MASSACHUSETTS (1949), which Miller had read, gave him further impetus to write the play. Driven, besides, by the imbroglio of his personal affairs: the involvement of friends and colleagues in the HUAC 'trials', Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb, for instance; and his personal relationship with Marilyn Monroe (Abigail Williams?) and, his wife, Mary Slattery (Elizabeth Proctor?), the play takes on an urgency and necessity of great creative/psychological forces.

What is amazingly affecting with this Sport For Jove production is the committed passion that the entire company give to this play. Not only in the intellectual integrity and insight of the conception of the production, and virtuosic staging, on a three-sided stage, by Mr Ryan (do read his program notes), but, also, with the visual interpretations and application of imaginative skills in fitting the 'look' of the production to the rural circumstances of the particulars of the Bella Vista environs by Designer Anna Gardiner, both, with Setting and quasi-period Costume solutions of convincing acumen, and the subtle atmospherics of the Lighting by Sian James-Holland - no small feat in this 'outdoor' challenge. The Sound Design, from David Stalley is also a marvel to, retrospectively, apprehend.

Says Mr Ryan in his program notes:
The Rights Agreement available to us from the Miller estate does not allow us to even consider the updating or contemporizing of the play's setting or events, but hopefully we don't need to. I have felt no desire to. It is already a contemporary play, deliberately set in a highly specific historical context and asking the audience to find the parallels and reflections themselves. ...
 I hope it was not just the Rights Agreement that gave him pause. To re-assure Mr Ryan, there was, indeed, no need. A great play never needs 'updating or contemporizing' to be made relevant for an audience, I think. That is why it is a 'classic' - it exists, itself, still, as a relevant 'document' of our humanity, no matter the time it is re-created. It was, and is, on its own merits, for all times! One just needs to work harder with the source material, and its interpreters, to realise that - to put the talent selected to bring it to life in a crucible, and direct the 'heat' of craft-rigour and inspiration to burn away the 'fat' of the distractions of the text, to reveal the 'heart-muscle' of the literary work. Sport For Jove has earlier demonstrated that understanding with its recent production of Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE. I, personally, wish that this Company was just as brave with its Shakespeare as well. The Play is the Thing. The visual or verbal choices/obfuscations, of some contemporary production, can be, a little condescending to the intelligence of the audience, and has a tendency to 'dumb-down' the inspiration, the impulse, of why one wishes to produce or experience the play. There was, I presume, when the artists first read the black print on the white page, in finding the play to produce, no 'updating or contemporizing' choices communicating the feast of the play, just the plain, unadulterated text. Trust that text, and embody it as writ, I say. I beg. Lesser material, go for it. But why do lesser material with so much else available to try to bring to life?

From top to bottom, in the casting, there is not a weak link in this production. What is especially remarkable is the depth of talent through the life generations of the actual actors. From dexterous veterans, some with convincing life weathered physicalities, that add real credence to the veracity of the world of the production/play: Annie Byron (Rebecca Nurse), Alan Faulkner (Francis Nurse), John Keightley (Giles Corey), Philip Dodd (Deputy Governor Hawthorne), Wendy Strehlow (Anna Putnam/Sarah Good), Jonathan Mill (Thomas Putnam), Christopher Tomkinson (Judge Hawthorn); to the middling career 'ground': Matt Edgerton (Reverend Samuel Parris), Suzanne Periera (Tituba), Lizzie Schebesta (Abigail Williams), Matilda Ridgeway (Mary Warren), Anthony Gooley (Reverend John Hale), Julian Garner (John Proctor), Georgia Adamson (Elizabeth Proctor), Richard Hilliar (Marshall Herrick); to the relatively fledgling cast members: Emma Chelsey (Betty Parris), Michelle McKenzie (Mercy Lewis), Adele Querol (Susanna Wallcot), Lucy Heffernan (Lizzie Hubberd), and Chris Stalley (Ezekiel Cheever).

Ms Schebesta and Mr Garner create a sexual heat and physical roughness of corrupting, convincing power, whilst Ms Adamson, the third point of the play's human triangle, is stalwart in her bewildered responses to her husband's betrayal, growing in status as the play unwinds its narrative. Mr Garner, develops the arc of his central responsibility as Proctor, skilfully, unleashing its full power of torn conscience and reason, to be mightily moving, in the last act of the play. Support from Mr Edgerton, Gooley and Ms Ridgeway is strong in the tasks that Mr Miller has given them. There is, as I have said, not a weak link - the detail and honesty of Mr Stalley in his, relatively, small task as the court documenter, Cheever, is indicative of the achievement of all.

I believe that the responsibility of the actor is basically three-fold:

  1. To tell the story of the play. 
  2. To create character that we believe - to tell personalised truths, for us to identify and own, with them. 
  3. To reveal the language of the play - the joys, wonder of English. 
So my carp, if I must have one, with this production, is that the word by word argument development of the characters in the play is often given as full-sentence emotionally sweeping generalisations, giving us, the audience, only, relatively, opaque gists of the narrative journey, and a clouded appreciation of the poetical writing of the language of the world and times that Mr Miller has, studiously created. There is great beauty in the language choice and construct in THE CRUCIBLE that is often swamped with the emotional imperative of this company (Robert Bolt's, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, and Stephen Jeffreys' THE LIBERTINE (brilliantly given by Sport For Jove, once upon a time) are other examples of studious anthropological creation of a language invention, of Shakespearean audacity). However, I venture, that it is true of all the writing of Mr Miller's work - and that it appears to be so naturalistic is its trap.  DEATH OF A SALESMAN, is another instance, often, of the underestimation of  Miller's writerly dexterity - for although the naturalistic 'appearance' is true, there is much poetry in the play prose of this great writer. It is why his plays stand as classic, for all the elements, narrative, character and language are part of his artistic tool-box, constant super structure. It is in the detail of the actor's craft, with the language verbalising, the objective-thought control of the artist with the word by word construct, that needs to be employed with rigour, and to deny, patiently and laboriously, the easy impulse to reveal the experience of the play with emotional indulgence, rather than in the clear logic of the language order, syntax and all, that will do credit to the 'genius' of the author. With that attention, I can assure, the latent humour, which is an important element in so weighty a moral allegory as THE CRUCIBLE, will be revealed, and will balance and enrich the experience of the play. Contrast and comic 'outlets' through the Miller ironic language underlining will undoubtedly deepen the affect of the play and production.

The famous production of this play for the Sydney Theatre Company, in1991, Directed by Richard Wherrett, was, and, for myself, is, proof of the benefit of such discipline. From the autobiography by Mr Wherrett, THE FLOOR OF HEAVEN:
The detail of (the) moments, moment built on moment, unit on unit, scene on scene, are what gives a performance the conviction of truth, the taste of belief, the illusion of reality: are what give it richness and texture. And while they should be the actor's responsibility-there is rarely enough time for the director to attend to every detailed moment in rehearsal-they still lie within the realm of the director-actor relationship. [2]
THE CRUCIBLE is Arthur Miller's most produced play, worldwide.

Miller's own speculations on the reasons for the play's longevity:
I have wondered if one of the reasons the play continues like this is its symbolic unleashing of the spectre of order's fragility. When certainties evaporate with each dawn, the unknowable is always around the corner. We know how much depends on mere trust and good faith and a certain respect for the human person, and how easily breached these are. And we know as well how close to the edge we live and how weak we really are and how quickly swept by fear the mass of us become ... It is also, I suppose, that the play reaffirms the ultimate power of courage and clarity of the mind whose ultimate fruit is liberty. [1]
Further to the Wherrett production:
At the end of one performance, a Saturday evening in July 1992 (a revival of the production from the year prior) John Howard as Proctor stepped forward and silenced the enthusiastic response. His speech was brief. He simply reminded the audience that three hundred years ago to the day, the sweet and dignified, wise and compassionate Rebecca Nurse had been hanged for witchcraft.The audience froze in horror. Perhaps not all of them were aware that the events of the play were true. But this quiet recollection of one tragic victim certainly jolted them into a chilling understanding of the facts. [2]
Our jolt and chill, at the Sport For Jove production, maybe, the psychic wounds, cast by the recent Martin Place tragedy, and the supposed deeply believed motivations of such an act.

Sport For Jove has given us another thrilling and pertinent theatre experience to absorb. An Independent Company with consistent quality achievements that deserves support from all areas. THE CRUCIBLE plays, in repertoire, with A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, at Bella Vista, till the end of this month, and then at The Leura Everglades, for most of January, 2015.

Do go.


P.S.:

Before the play proper, Mr Ryan has created  a prelude: an Installation/Set of Tableau vivant, of groupings of the denizens of Salem in the old farm house. It is startling in its capture of the claustrophobia of the zealotry of a Puritanical faith and the inner hostility that is bred with the 'violence' of such a proscriptive hegemonic way of life.

We catch through a window, a doorway, as we walked through the house, girls running off; we followed them, and from a distance, watched the slave woman, Tituba, lead the girls to an alternative  way, celebration, of life, with semi-naked dancing, singing and whooping to a frenzied  drumming,  from the burdens of a fetid sexuality and natural exuberance for a life, groping for release from, it seemed,  the human/animal needs of over-ripe lubricious young bodies, and spirits.

The deadly consequences of such indulgence we watched unleashed back in the barn as the play proper began.

References:
  1. ARTHUR MILLER 1915-1962, by Christopher Bigsby, Widenfeld and Nicolson, 2008.
  2. THE FLOOR OF HEAVEN, My Life in the Theatre, by Richard Wherrett. Sceptre, 2000.
Recommended reading:
  1. ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY, edited by Christopher Bigsby, Methuen Drama, 1990.
  2. READING LIKE A WRITER, by Francine Prose, Harper Collins, 2006.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kevin, I think you should mention, whenever reviewing this company, that none of the actors are paid a liveable minimum wage.

Kevin Jackson said...

I have already.
Please read the ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL blog.