Set play

6th October 2000 at 01:00
THE CRUCIBLE. Haymarket, Leicester Mercury, Colchester.

Although the film version is a costume drama, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (first staged in 1953) is a play which not only conjures up a distant past, with its portrayal of the 1692 Salem witch trials, but also argues that the individual conscience can defy authority in any age.

At Leicester Haymarket, director Paul Kerryson points out that The Crucible is a "big, epic play" that benefits from a "large, abstract production" on an open stage which is designed with symbolic shapes "that will fire the imagination".

Although Miller's play is "firmly set in the 17th century, you're supposed to use your imagination to translate it to any period, whether it's the McCarthy era witch-hunts in the 1950s or now". The "social hysteria" which the play shows is relevant both to human nature in general and to specific events, such as the "lynch mob mentality" of the recent anti-paedophile demonstrations. And, Kerryson adds, using "religious zeal to fuel revenge goes on all the time".

"The darker side of human nature is just below the surface - pointing the finger and scapegoating are more important than finding the truth."

The play's central triangle of John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth and servant Abigail "touches many a nerve sexually with a lot of people in terms of distrust and guilt". As "one lie leads to another", the play's tragedy unfolds.

With Elizabeth played by Amita Dhiri (Milly from BBC2's This Life), question of race are added to those of sex. After all, Miller himself "has said how well The Crucible translates to many areas of the world, from China to Asia".

Gregory Floy, director of the Mercury theatre's version, says, "We are putting all our effort into doing this classic play and we're not letting the large size of the cast (18 actors playing 20 parts) put us off." His production is set in "a very enclosed community" with "lots of timber", with the feeling that beyond the precarious settlement, "the forest looms like a huge void, a massive natural power".

Although Miller wrote the play as a response to McCarthyism, Floy sees it as equally "applicable to the petrol crisis, or any situation in which popular feeling catches fire and all logic goes out of the window".

The central theme of the individual's struggle against authority is seen "in the amazing amount of times that 'me, me' or 'I, I' crops up in the text".

He sees Proctor's final choice to die as "an awful Catch-22 situation". The play's deliberately archaic language forces the director to choose which dialect to play it in. Floy has gone for "a general East Anglian, avoiding any hints of Mummerset, but we found that as the cast worked together they developed their own communal dialect", thus creating their own version of the world of the play.

Aleks Sierz

Mercury, Colchester, to October 21 (box office: 01206 573 948); Haymarket, Leicester, October 13 to November 11 (box office: 0116 253 9797)

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