The arrival of Rose on a Rail's production of The Crucible feels perfectly timed, in its material's clear link to politicians trafficking in fear of outsiders and the encouraging of divisive otherness. Not only are we in the eked-out throes of Brexit but, even as the first night show went on, Donald J. Trump's grip on power was rocking under the hand grenade testimony of a former crony. Arthur Miller's portrait of murderous mass hysteria in the 17th century Salem witch trials points us obliquely, if not square-on, to these contemporary events, while Miller was targeting the McCarthy 'Red Menace' senatorial hearings in 1950s Washington DC.
This Crucible from Director Cesca Echlin and her colleagues is a gem – and no little gem. It's possibly the most elaborate show I've seen at the Pilch Studio, and everything about it oozes quality. Despite the small playing space, with audience pressed in on three sides, there was no feeling of physical constriction; Cesca and Movement Director Matilda Hadcock have found a rare balance between stasis and action in a pressure-cooker atmosphere; the non-speaking actors monitoring the dialogue from the shadows, starving ravens eyeing a flock of sparrows. The musical interventions by Leonard Maassen were threatening and admirably timed.
And so we sat, aghast and chilled to the marrow, as Miller's great themes rolled past us – among them the perils of a theocratic state in which a definition of crime can be usurped by that of sin, and the seductive power of hysteria to destroy all restraint.
If I pick out a few of the performances, this is in the context of appreciation of the very strong ensemble. Alex Marks' Proctor, strong in stature and voice, was a secure anchor, while as Rev Hale, his arrival in town the catalyst for persecution, Tom Fisher convinced as the witchcraft 'expert' whose critical mind precludes his swallowing the excesses of the hue-and-cry. Dominic Weatherby, rich in orotund vowels and of prehensile bearing, is a commanding Judge Danforth, frightening in his intransigence and egotism. Olivia Marshall managed the difficult task of injecting energy into her essentially timid maidservant Mary.
The one quibble I might have is the tendency for a number of the players, at moments of heightened emotion, to reach for the default shouting button. A more nuanced approach would pay dividends. Thus, were Abby McCann's Abigail and, more particularly, Gavin Fleming's Rev Parris to find variation of tone and volume, their playing would graduate from the merely promising to the satisfying. In this respect, Maddy Page's quiet strength as Elizabeth Proctor demonstrated how it could be done.
I'm told the show's all but booked out for the rest of the week. So now's the time to call in past favours from a friend in possession of a ticket, or maybe resort to naked bribery. For its artistic success in shining a spotlight on how superstition and intolerance can, unchecked, sweep away the claims of science and logic, this drama has to be seen.