A seemingly simple interpretation of this play, first performed in Britain at the Bristol Old Vic in 1954, from the beginning brought the audience in to be witness to the unfolding events. Part of the audience sit on staging set up at the back of the stage, which reminds us of the courtroom scene that will follow, and behind them, an innocent looking forest of branches and leaves, beautifully lit, which transform before our eyes, through the language of the play, to become a site of potential evil. At the end we even see the trees as gibbets for those that have been punished.
The concept of turning the proscenium arch stage into one in the round, assists in bringing the audience into the action, as the actors use the space as if it were open all round; the pacing round the wooden circle by Abigail as well as others, indicates how trapped, by her fictions, like an animal going crazy in a zoo, and how narrow are the experiences, in particular, for the women. In the second half, benches are laid out in a square to create the prison cell, and the audience’s staging towards the end is moved back to create a feeling of greater space and less claustrophobia, at the final moments when all is lost.
The production reminds us through its simplicity of set (mainly wood- benches, a window frame, wooden bowls) and costumes, (greys, browns and black, neat caps for the women, hair only let loose when the looseness of character or believed guilt is to be understood) of the Puritanical background to the Salem witch trials. We often forget that many of the first immigrants to the States were extreme Christians, who found the so called tolerance in Europe unacceptable to their faith. It is only a small step from religious bigotry to blame and guilt.
But this play, and this production do not just take the audience back to the 17th century. Constantly we are reminded of not just the McCarthy era in which Miller wrote the play, but its continuing relevance today.
There are so many parallels to contemporary society:
the spread of gossip, allegations and insinuations through social media and the press,
the surveillance society, informing on people you suspect, (for instance parents being encouraged to inform on their children they might suspect of radicalisation)
allegations of and difficulties in proving cases where there is only the alleged perpetrator and the victim and no other witness (for example in the modern day, sexual violence eg rape, paedophilia) as “who may possibly be witness to it?” – only “the witch and the victim”, and “we must rely on the victims… the children do testify” (does that make it a crime impossible to disprove?)
the writer immediately was reminded of the recent issues of Paul Gambaccini being on bail for a year, and Leon Brittan, who died not knowing the result of police investigations.
the workings of the court and legal system- the judge states there is no need for a lawyer, and at one point it is questioned: “is every defence an attack on the court?”,
that “there are those that will testify to anything if not to hang”- the whole concept of confession evidence and the weight it should hold in court….
they are all questions we should still be asking ourselves, perhaps more than ever before with the erosion of Legal Aid for cases, the cost of employing lawyers,the complexity of our court system, and the need for justice to be seen to be done. As a former lawyer who worked in court, for the writer,all these issues resonated – “how to discover what precisely no one has never seen”
The production is gripping, the acting is in the main really strong- especially Abigail and Elizabeth- who have such oppositional parts, and who are both manipulated by their feelings for Proctor. Definitely worth seeing- it’s quite a long night but so rewarding.