Es Delvin (set design) is titled on the main billboard outside the theatre and I note that I haven't seen this done before. As I make my way into the auditorium I'm met by a crashing curtain of rain falling from the ceiling. I understand the billboard now. He's simply one of the best.
This transfer production of Arthur Miller's popular hit based on sixteen hundred witch hunts is directed by Lindsay Turner. It's a straightforward rendition with epic grandeur. It's visually wonderful. Beyond the rain effect, the set is minimalist. Chairs are moved around the raked stage that stuns with its never-ending depth. The set suits The Gielgud stage and some of the lighting looks like an illusion. The lighting (Tim Luktin) sets the mood and shape of the stage throughout. The dramatic songs, shrieks and screams performed by the ensemble of girls creates a chilling atmosphere.
The year is 1692, Salem Massachusetts. Women are at the mercy of the Christian court who pins nearly all wrongdoings on the devil's witchcraft. A real-life story where a group of young girls falsely accused dozens of being witches which led to wrongful executions and mass hysteria. Twenty innocent people died at the hands of the Christian court.
Millly Alcock (rising star from House of the Dragon) makes for a strong Abigail. The young girl who is willing to fake visions to scorn her ex-lover and her town with accusations of satanism. Alcock is self-assured and commanding in her stage debut.
Another new addition is Brian Gleeson as rights fighting farmer and husband John Procter. Gleeson brings a wounded anger to the role with some earth-shattering monologues.
A prelude narrated by the cast speaking of Miller's play and its origin was well fitting and softened what can be an abrupt opening. The actors speak directly to the audience to foretell the disaster about to strike them. The story of lying school girls has been flipped on its head and it's now an uprising for women… Disaster is about to strike.
Hysteria is of course the running theme throughout the text. It feels as though Lindsay Turner has played on the hypocrisy and blind belief by leaving the play alone, it's straightforward but it's slick and harrowing to watch unfold.
The cast are on top of their game, the ensemble of girls humming and harmonizing create a haunting backdrop.
Nia Towle is a compelling Mary Warren. Naddine Higgin makes for the best Tituba I've seen. Matthew Marsh delivers a performance that has us on the edge of our seats.
The company is on stage for most of the show, it gets tiring and looks busy at times but it works. The American accents with a southern twang bring out a different flavour. Today in the states women's rights and right-wing religious Americans are at the height of discussion. The accents feel like a subtle way to help the audience draw modern comparisons. Miller wrote the play connecting it to the hypocrisies of the Red Scare.
Another stand out is Fisayo Akinade as witch expert Reverend John Hale. His pleading for a fair trial cuts sharply through the noise and Akinade delivers a heartfelt, gutsy performance. His desire to play savior leaves him wracked with guilt and despair.
Even though the production is stunning, the interpretation feels very by the book. It's glossy but maybe a missed opportunity to reinvent how the show presents and add some heat.
However, the performances are outstanding and the messaging of the show is clearer than ever. Does following a belief get in the way of knowing the truth?
It runs until 2 September.
Review: Nicole Botha Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg