I've seen lots of gripping productions at the Old Vic since Kevin Spacey took it over, and before. This revival of Arthur Miller's classic play by the South African director Yael Farber may be one of the longest, but it is also one of the finest.
Farber had the Edinburgh Festival Fringe spellbound a couple of years ago with a South African version of Strindberg's Miss Julie, which also ran at RIverside Studios in London. Her version of The Crucible, written 60 years ago, is equally breathtaking. The tension it generates is palpable, and at the end of the preview performance (about 11.15 pm) the audience leapt up for a standing ovation.
The Crucible, a dramatic retelling of the 17th century Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, was Miller's response to Senator Joe McCarthy and the anti-communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s. Miller's dramatic reputation remains higher in Europe than at home in the U.S., where conservatives still see him as a dangerous Red and a naive supporter of Stalin's Soviet Union.
Whatever the playwright's political views, this is a great play, though a wordy one; the buildup of the story is clumsy and the cast list is very long. If was shorter, the play would probably have more professional productions; this is only the second one I have seen, after the RSC's with Iain Glen as Proctor in 2006. I remember being struck when I first saw it by Miller's skill in handling scenes with multiple participants.
This time, the impact is much more visceral. Farber has created a version that, despite the standing ovation, can't be described as audience-friendly. It lasts three hours forty five minutes, and in the Old Vic's temporary 'theatre-in-the-round', the actors tend to look inwards at the centre of the stage rather than communicate with the audience. Farber's approach is to bridge the scenes with ritualistic movement. The first person we see is the Barbados slave Tituba, circling the stage very slowly carrying a pot. There are chairs and tables, but for most of the play the actors seem ill at ease with them, suggesting a pre-modern society. Farber seems to have the gift of making actors believe totally in their roles, and there are some mesmerising performances in this production.
The story of the Salem with-hunts, with its false confessions about consorting with the devil, is totally contemporary. Religious and political fanaticism is stronger today than when Miller wrote it. His link to the activities of McCarthy and his associates is obvious, but there are many other ways in which it works as a contemporary parable. The one that instantly springs to my mind is the Stalinist purges of the Soviet 1930s, whose victims confessed to non-existent plots with Trotsky, with Germany or with British and American imperialism. Salem for me is Moscow in 1937-8 rather than Washington fifteen years later. With or without a confession, the Moscow purge victims were executed or sent into prison or exile. It is worth remembering that McCarthy's HUAC hearings did not kill anyone, though they ruined many Hollywood careers. I don't know what Miller really thought in private about the Moscow trials or about Stalinism, though the answer probably lies somewhere in Professor Christopher Bigsby's biography. His other biographer Martin Gottfried doesn't really get to grips with the question.
The Crucible is a risk for any unsubsidised theatre, because of the daunting size of the cast. The run deserves to sell out. Whatever the reviews say, and I am sure they will be positive, Kevin Spacey's final months at the Old Vic are playing out with a bang.