Theatre review: The Crucible, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

What is that makes Arthur Miller's historical drama The Crucible such a vital and thrilling play for today, no matter when and where it appears?

John Doves  production of The Crucible  is an immense performance. Picture: Drew Farrell
John Doves production of The Crucible is an immense performance. Picture: Drew Farrell

The Crucible | Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh | Rating ****

In John Dove’s magnificent and absorbing new production for the Lyceum Theatre – one of the largest shows seen there in a decade, with a cast of 19 actors – the play comes in strikingly conventional form, every detail of period costume correct, the accents shifted to Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690’s, and Michael Taylor’s beautiful, open set, with lighting by Tom Mitchell, reflecting the hand-made architecture of the time.

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Yet from the first moment when Joanna Tope’s powerful Rebecca Nurse enters the room where the minister’s daughter Betty lies in an apparent trance, speaks a few words of evident common sense about its likely cause, and sees her wisdom overwhelmed in a torrent of unleashed fear, rage and resentment that fixes itself on the idea of witchcraft in the community, Miller’s drama grips us like a vice. As we are about to learn again in this year’s EU referendum campaign, politics in any time and place always moves along a spectrum between sense and enlightenment on one hand, fear, repression and violent “othering” on the other; and as Miller’s beautifully-constructed plot unfolds over two-and-three-quarter hours, much of the dialogue seems strangely familiar, particularly after Ron Donachie’s burly Deputy Governor Danforth arrives, with his talk about “who is not with us is against us”, and about the need to invade every home and respect no privacy in search of the guilty ones.

It’s a strking feature of Dove’s immense production that despite the strength of individual performances like these, the drama always seems to be in the hands of the whole ensemble, rather than individual actors; Philip Cairns’s John Proctor - supported by a touching Irene Allan as his “cold wife” Elizabeth - is not so much a hero as a hard-working servant of his farm, his family, and finally of the truth at the heart of the play.

And if the production ends with a sudden blackness that doesn’t quite allow us time to absorb the weight of Proctor’s final decision, it remains a heart-stopping account of a play that has never seemed more important; a warning of the absolute need to use our own wits and reason to understand the griefs that face our communities, and never simply to accept the word of the powerful when they tell us who our enemies are, and how much more power and freedom they will need to take from us, in order to keep us “safe”.

• Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 19 March.