This time Ivo van Hove has gone too far.
Too bad. As recently as last November, the Belgian director’s deconstruction of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, Arthur Miller’s sixth play, was a triumph of imagination. Now his take on Miller’s fifth play – THE CRUCIBLE – is sterile, low-octane slow, badly staged, an assault on eyes and ears as well as horribly misconceived.
I of course cannot speak for Arthur Miller, but I’d be mighty angry if I were a playwright who had to witness such mindless liberties imposed on my most popular work (and it is indeed Miller’s, for it’s produced far more often than even DEATH OF A SALESMAN).
Fair warning: If you already have tickets, be sure to read the play in advance. Woe to all attendees who aren’t familiar with Miller’s 1953 masterpiece, for they’ll be as lost as the souls of the Puritan girls on stage are alleged to be.
“Alleged” is the key word. A bunch of teens were found in the middle of the night cavorting in the woods – which was an enormous no-no in the constricting times of 1692 Salem, Massachusetts. Soon the law gets involved, trials are held, and circumstantial evidence, finger- pointing and name-naming lead to loss of reputation and life.
Better still: See the 1996 film, which profits from showing scenes only discussed in the stage version. It starts with the actual “ceremony” that got many a girl into a stupor and trouble. Both Miller, who wrote the screenplay, and director Nicholas Hytner suggested that, like all teens, the girls enjoyed the danger and drama of sneaking out of the house at night. Their actions were about as heretical as skinny-dipping.
Act One takes place in the bedroom of Betty Parris, a girl who may be catatonic or playing possum. Costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic has placed her friends in contemporary schoolgirl uniforms, which does, at least, suggest how young they are to be accused of such “crimes.” (The Puritans did spend quite a bit of time worrying about pleasing God and denying the Devil.)
Then Act Two moves to the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor, a couple whose relationship has been damaged by John’s adultery with the younger and prettier Abigail Williams. There are still two acts to go, but Van Hove has scheduled one intermission here. Luckily, he’s sparing us THREE intervals; we’d never get home, for as it is, van Hove’s vision takes almost three hours to be realized.
Act Three occurs in the Salem courthouse, and Act Four in a jail. I carefully detail each location because you get little sense of any of them from Jan Versweyveld’s set; it is, believe it or not, a schoolroom complete with blackboard (which does a few nifty tricks; watch for them). The schoolroom setting also virtually demands that a lighting designer – here, also Versweyveld – order harsh fluorescents.
To make matters much worse, van Hove too often places the action far upstage. What’s more, in a play where everyone (especially in the scenes in the bedroom and jail) should have people almost atop each other, the Walter Kerr stage is big enough to host an Arena Football game.
In a play filled with one confrontation after another, there isn’t enough face-to-face in-your-face conflict. Van Hove alienates his characters from one another by putting each in a far-apart schooldesk. By dividing them, Van Hove has only divided but has not conquered. Does the flotsam and jetsam that often litter the stage representing van Hove’s all-over-the-place ideas?
The seldom-ceasing Philip Glass music – often relegated to a couple of measures that repeat and repeat — is as annoying as the sound of a refrigerator that won’t stop running. No wonder that on three occasions Deputy Governor ’ Danforth (Ciarán Hinds) says “I cannot hear you” – no, not with music that sounds like gears grinding. How happy we are when it stops, making us give out with the same whoosh of relief we get when a car-alarm on the street finally goes off after assaulting us for many grueling minutes.
But then it returns. Frankly, even without this distraction many of the actors would be would still be mercilessly hard to hear, for van Hove has them speak in the sotto-ish of sotto voce. Here’s betting that many theatergoers who stay after intermission (and not everyone will, it’s safe to say) will head to the back to the theater to rent those infrared headsets to help people hear better.
Although we never meet Mrs. Giles Corey, her husband, adeptly played by Jim Norton, tells us enough about her curiosity with books that we see she’s smarter than he but is constrained by 17th century society.
Ben Whishaw seems terribly weak as John Proctor. His one powerful moment comes in the first act, when Abigail tries to seduce him. Out of frustration, John thrusts Abigail onto the school desk and pins her down, putting his body squarely on hers. When he realizes that his exasperation could be misconstrued as lust, he quickly gets up. But she remains there, flat on her back, hoping he’ll return both literally and figuratively.
As for Proctor’s back, in the final scene we see it covered with stage blood to suggest he’s been terribly whipped. Alas, Whishaw walks around as if nothing has happened to him.
As his wife Elizabeth, Sophie Okonedo offers a lofty British accent that she might have picked up from her forebears. Okonedo makes Elizabeth reasonable and rational, which subverts John’s claim that “your justice would freeze beer.” The closest she comes to being a harridan comes from an assertiveness reminiscent of our contemporary women. Of course, that makes her seem anachronist, which is another problem.
Some may accuse Ciarán Hinds of being too underpowered as Deputy Governor Danforth, but his matter-of-fact, hands-in-pocket ease could suggest that he’s been in authority for some time and is fully accustomed to the power.
Saoirse Ronan, who comes the Broadway straight from BROOKLYN (the film, not the borough), gives town minx Abigail Williams a lovely-sounding and confidence. The latter quality is best shown when contradicting Tituba’s claims. She knows that her word, even if many citizens doubt it, will be taken over the testimony of a mere black slave.
As Mary Warren, one of the so-called afflicted witches, Tavi Gevinson is especially effective when she goes into her trance-dance. Gevinson is 19 – in keeping with the age Miller saw her – but she looks so much younger that grown men’s incessant verbal harassment does pack a punch.
The rest of the cast is fine, and all deserve to be in a traditional production, or, at the very least, one less misconceived than van Hove’s. But if a business-as-usual production doesn’t interest this maverick director, how about this slant? Considering that Miller wrote THE CRUCIBLE as a metaphor for the McCarthy era of ‘50s witch hunts, why not have a designer replicate the actual setting of where the House Un-American Activities Committee did its career-destroying worst? If you’re going to go high-concept, at least go for a concept that makes some sense.