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Melting pot of mass hysteria

Nadia Vella is in for some bashing from Michael Mangion in The Crucible. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Nadia Vella is in for some bashing from Michael Mangion in The Crucible. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

The Manoel Theatre casts a spell on its audience as it grapples with the horrors of pride, revenge and fear in an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play

Theatre
The Crucible
Manoel Theatre

It may seem odd to start a review of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, with a quote from L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” But this statement is particularly apt to describe Miller’s use of the historical context of his play, in my interpretation that the execution of things may have been different in the past but the intentions, motivations and consequences never truly differ from one era to another.

Coincidentally, Hartley’s The Go-Between was also written in 1953. This speaks volumes about the rebellious and defining movements of mid-20th century cultural and artistic circles.

The primal distasteful emotions of pride, revenge, vindictiveness, lust and fear are all explored in Miller’s excellent script, which looks at how coercion induced by mass hysteria and torture, both psychological and physical, can lead communities to turn on themselves and implode.

Personal relationships between friends, neighbours, family and lovers are all tested to the limit and for the greater part destroyed, thanks to the false evidence provided by an impressionable group of young girls, who are manipulated by their ringleader, Abigail Williams.

Nadia Vella gives a terrific performance as Abigail: drawing the audience in with her beguiling intensity, as she weaves her web of lies around a community where she is an outsider.

What develops is a psychological thriller based on the historical evidence of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1993. Interestingly, Abigail and the other girls who are apparently tormented by witches, start by accusing other societal outcasts in an attempt to cover up their own dabbling with the supernatural. They try to curse Elizabeth Proctor (Simone Ellul), with whose husband, John (Kenneth Spiteri), Abigail has had an affair and was subsequently dismissed from the Proctor household by Elizabeth.

All this is the basis on which the rest of the narrative develops – as an observation and warning against the dangers of authoritarianism, absolutist theocracy, suspicion of divergent beliefs, petty neighbourhood rivalries over disputed property lines and discontented religious and political factions. The truth was always there and admitted quite early on in the play by the more rational of the characters but the development does not lead to a typical denouement; rather the entangling mesh of lies draws tighter and closer as it reaches further than the extent of Abigail’s plan.

Abigail’s naïve and deluded plan to have the man she has fallen in love with, even after he rejects her, in a combination of genuine marital remorse and the desire to keep his good name untarnished, leads her to transform her modest plan into one where she combines vindictiveness with self-preservation.

By preying on the superstitious beliefs and fears of others, her own fear for her life, fans the flames of the literal witch hunt that takes place, concretising the meaning of the play’s title – where the village becomes a melting pot in which reactions and explosions take place under high pressure.

A veritable feast of well-orchestrated execution, imagery, storytelling

Spiteri is arresting and strong in his excellent portrayal of the stoic Proctor who begins to value reason, loyalty and truth as more significant than his reputation, especially when the good sense of his wife Elizabeth, played with great poise and sensitivity by Ellul, leads him to ultimately do the right thing. What he doesn’t anticipate is that the truth matters little when it is considered dangerous by those in authority, whose infallibility and moral judgement are brought into question.

The biggest dilemma that Proctor faces is a matter of moral conscience: does he tell a lie to save himself and condemn his friends and neighbours? Or does he stick with the truth and die an honourable death?

Director Sean Buhagiar could not have chosen a better cast for this production, which is being rightly touted as the most anticipated of this year’s theatre season. I have not been to the theatre and enjoyed the contemporary interpretation of a modern classic script, as much as I have this one, in a very long time.

Putting together a great design team meant that the styling, the ominous atmosphere, rising tension, sexual jealousy and rampant bigotry were presented with sharp visual clarity.

Austin Camilleri’s brooding set, all angular and raked, is thrown into relief by Moritz Zavan Stoeckle’s lighting which completed the mood with Yasmin Kuymisakis’s sound design: the stage never lets the eye wonder far from the dramatic focus of the piece.

With Sef Farrugia’s contemporary twist on 17th-century costumes, adding more than a nod to the palate and character of the latest adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a crunchingly fresh cohesion of mood, colour and light which complements the very large and excellent cast.

Edward Caruana Galizia shone as the earnest Rev. Hale, who is torn between his dilemma of doing God’s work and realising that a gross injustice has been made. Once brought in by the belligerent Rev Parris (Michael Mangion), Hale attempts to be as rational as he can and is the only character in authority who admits his error, only to be thwarted by powers higher than his, in the guise of judges Danforth (Stephen Oliver) and Hawthorne (Peter Galea).

Oliver does angry very well and while his performance was sharp, I would have preferred it to be more nuanced; being intimidating and forceful does not necessarily require a barrage of shouted lines.  Of the girls, Gabriela Mendez’s Tituba was strong and Roberta Cefai’s Mary Warren, who falters in her accusations before being sucked back into Abigail’s circle of threats for fear of her life, gave a brilliant performance.

Colin Fitz, in his most poignant and sensitive role yet, as Giles Corey, battled the Putnams – Thomas (John Marinelli) and Ann (Hannah Cramer) legally, but with accusations held against him and his wife (Nanette Brimmer), his fate was sealed.

Other well-established actors also gave their smaller roles great power and poignancy, particularly Marylu Coppini as Rebecca Nurse, Thomas Camilleri as John Willard, Narcy Calamatta as Francis Nurse and Isabel Warrington as Sarah Good.

Newcomer Edward Thorpe, who played court clerk Ezekiel Cheever, also gave a very convincing performance.

The Manoel Theatre’s production of The Crucible is a veritable feast of well-orchestrated execution, imagery, storytelling and psychopolitical critique. It is directed and styled in an almost curatorial manner and deserves more than the five-day run it has been given. It is a defining production in its professionalism and delivery. An absolute must-see this theatre season.

The Crucible is being staged at the Manoel today, tomorrow and on  Sunday at 8pm. For tickets, visit www.teatrumanoel.com.mt.

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