The Crucible (The Lyceum 18 Feb – 19 March ’16)

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“Just as bleak and brilliant as Miller’s tragedy demands”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad

Nothing says “a good night” like unchecked hysteria, unopened hearts and unnecessary hangings. That’s why I’m always excited to see a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, and even moreso in the beautiful Lyceum theatre. But does Mark Thomson’s staging of Miller’s work deserve a standing ovation or a slipknot? The star rating above may be a small clue as to which is true: this was a beautiful, if flawed, production of a well beloved American classic.

Set in the year 1692, ‘The Crucible’ follows the path of destruction wreaked by mass hysteria, lust and shame in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. As rumours of witchcraft fly and secret affairs are uncovered, what begins as a simple dance in the woods becomes a matter of law, life and death. Lighthearted stuff.

As you might imagine, Miller’s classic demands atmosphere. From the outset, it’s clear that Thomson has a knack for choosing set designers. It’s not often I open with talk about the furniture, but I was extremely impressed with the quiet ingenuity of Crucible’s set. From the authentic, rustic comfort of the Proctor house to the cold rigidity of the courthouse, each setting hit all the marks in terms of visuals. But even further, it wasn’t just pretty – the use of space was downright clever. Each little quadrant of the stage was self-contained enough to render smaller scenes intimate, and yet interconnected enough to make group sections seem cavernously intimidating. And the use of trees for scenery and blocking lent what felt like meters of depth to a finite stage. For set alone, this show ticked all the boxes.

But luckily, the set isn’t all I’ve got to write happily about. As can be expected from the Lyceum, the acting talent on display is considerable – my personal MVP goes to David Beames as the most entertaining and human interpretation of Giles Corey I’ve seen yet. If I could pay him to narrate my life, you’d bet he’d never go hungry.

But aside from pure entertainment value, I was most impressed by Richard Conlon as Reverend John Hale. When I first read The Crucible, I disliked Hale. I thought he was two-dimensional and boring – but none of these problems so much as touch Conlon. No other portrayal of the character has been as compelling or realistic as his, and I’ve similarly never felt for Hale as much as I did in this production. The emotional depth, the body language, the subtle vocal tics; they all come together almost flawlessly. Fan-bloody-tastic.

Similarly, Philip Cairns shines as John Proctor, applying a great amount of force and raw emotion to the character’s more intense scenes. He moves from tenderness to scepticism to fury as if it were easy as breathing – though this is no doubt benefited from acting opposite the likes of Irene Allan as Elizabeth Proctor. The part of Elizabeth is by no means easy: showing an audience the culmination of years of insecurity and indecision without overacting is like slacklining drunk; that’s what I was so pleased to see how powerful the character was in Allan’s hands. Her final scene and famous closing lines gave me chills.

That same strength runs through the rest of the cast. Meghan Tyler as Abigail Williams is wonderfully duplicitous, mixing sensuousness with devious brutality in the same breath. The Putnams (Douglas Russell and Isabella Jarrett) are as abrasive as the narrative demands, and Greg Powrie’s Reverend Parris is pathetic is the best way possible. Even the young company capture the panic and vulnerability of young girls in the hard frontier of the American East.

So, with such a talented cast and clever design crew, why isn’t this a five star show? Predictably, there are always a few flies in the soup.

As a general note, whilst the accent work at play generally good, it was prone to slippage. Often, the cadence showed more sense than the characters by fleeing from Massachusetts to upstate New York – and, on occasion, Cairns’ Bostonian drawl threatened to slide into a strange mix of Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whilst it won’t bother the average Brit theatregoer, those more familiar with the voices of the new world may find it slightly grating.

Furthermore, I had a huge problem with the sound design. Whilst at times it was a dramatically advantageous decision, at others (especially in the courtroom scenes) it was, at best, a distraction and at worst it utterly broke the tension and dramatic pacing of the scene. I found myself consciously wondering why on earth a scene of screaming hysterics and implied cold-blooded murder for the sake of sex was accompanied by a pleasant violin trill in a major key. In any other show this might not be such a large issue, but in one which is so dependent on atmosphere and audience absorption, it gets amplified.

And it’s in the hysteria that we find my biggest complaint with the production. Whilst certain scenes were certainly not lacking in gravitas, the play’s overall arc of tension was patchy. Some sections jump from being devoid of dread to bursting with it – instead of a steadily escalating fever pitch, it jumps from extreme to extreme.

Unfortunately, this also wasn’t helped by the fact that it felt strangely static at points, as if all the fear had been sucked out of the room. There’s a difference between strained silence and dull quiet, and sometimes this production seemed to confuse them.

Do I think these flaws ruined The Crucible? Far from it. Mark Thomson’s formidable cast rides out the few choppy waves this show presented, and Miller’s famous talent for dialogue is hardly diminished. There are definitely more strengths to this production than weaknesses, and the audience chatter at both the interval and end attest to that fact.

If you get the chance, definitely give The Crucible a look. It’s a production that never fails to entertain whether you’re a Miller virgin or a die-hard fan. Though perhaps a little clunky in the seams, the overall fabric of the show is just as bleak and brilliant as it Miller’s tragedy demands. You might not see Sarah Good with the devil, but you’ll definitely see a strong production.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 20 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ (Lyceum: 18 Feb. – 14 March ’15)

Grusha :Amy Manson Photo: Alan McCredie

Grusha :Amy Manson
Photo: Alan McCredie

“Compelling”

4 Stars: Outstanding

‘Standing between doorway and gateway, she heard
Or thought she heard …’

Listen up, “I’ve looked into the pockets of the rich and that is [considered] bad language.” Here is a contemporary, full-on production of Bertolt Brecht’s great and humane play; its profane political resonances not so much hanging in the air as gusting out of the wind machine. As it goes, these days and then, HSBC (Swiss arm) could be up there on the gallows with the town judge, the Chief Tax Collector and the rest. At a grim stretch, you’ve seen what’s happening in the eastern Ukraine, well, here we go again.

We’re talking piastres of indeterminate (Ottoman?) origin rather than of pound, franc or euro but who cares provided you’ve got a shedload? And that’s the economics of the piece: “Those who had no share in the fortunes of the mighty / Often have a share in their misfortunes.” Out of confusion, collapse, coup and revolution come the have-nots-have-all stories of brave Grusha and of His Worship the excellent, the most scurrilous Azdak. Theirs, in amongst the rifles, rape and the noose, is the unlikely, virtuous, lyrically unco traffic of our stage.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play with songs and director Mark Thomson realises how entertaining it should and can be, in or out of the shadow of Soviet tractors. Sarah Swire, as the Singer-Narrator, is not Brecht’s ‘sturdy man of simple manners’ but a punchy and versatile performer whose style and presence guides and informs rather than commands. Cast members double as musicians and Composer/Musical Director Claire McKenzie creates a strong and urgent soundscape: the city falls to a fearsome clockwork beat; Grusha is held in a ghastly tango by her brute of a husband. There is dancing, quite rightly, at the close.

The Singer: Sarah Swire Azdak: Christopher Fairbank Photo: Alan McCredie

The Singer: Sarah Swire
Azdak: Christopher Fairbank
Photo: Alan McCredie

The Singer sings of once upon a time, for the legend of the circle of chalk is based upon an old Chinese play. At its centre Brecht places Grusha, the kitchen maid, who saves the Governor’s child and runs for the mountains. These are not kind times. Papa’s head ends up on a lance and soldiers are hunting them down. Grusha’s flight is perilous, not least when she’s crossing a 2000 foot drop on a half rotten bridge. This is terrifically staged, as befits the moment when ‘Grushna Vachnadze decided to be the child’s mother’. Thomson realizes that this play works when an audience is exposed to why people behave the way they do. Azdak’s decision not to hand over the fugitive Grand Duke makes sense when you are gripped by his arch reasoning. Trial by chalk circle is palpably, deliberately, grotesque but it’s a dramatic triumph.

Christopher Fairbank is a stomping success as Azdak. More the truculent Ariel than any burdened mage, he is the rogue Time Lord with an impish spirit who obliges and provokes in the blink of an eye. Amy Manson gives an unwavering performance as the steadfast Grusha and harvests all the sympathy that the audience as collective can supply. Nasty, uncomfortable menace comes from the Sergeant, frighteningly well played by Deborah Arnott whilst Shirley Darroch as fat Prince Kazbeki is a cigar chomping nightmare, only marginally offset by her blaring trombone.

Kazbeki: Shirley Darroch Photo: Alan McCredie

Kazbeki: Shirley Darroch
Photo: Alan McCredie

Alistair Beaton’s translation matches the lucidity of his programme notes on translating Brecht but is not helped when the accents travel far and wide: from the Thames estuary to the Welsh valleys, to Birmingham, to the North East, and to Scots, high and low. Strained rather than epic, I thought. And light features like smooth, RP-ridden lawyers, Barbour-clad farmers, mobiles, and a Lidl bag signify too much, too unnecessarily. You can speak uber German, I’m told, but all the same posh English for the ‘upper’ class is becoming too easy a target to mean much.

Still, “All pleasures have to be rationed” says the Girl Tractor Driver. Actually, not so in this eager and compelling production.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 February)

Visit The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Lyceum here.

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘Dark Road’ (Lyceum: 25 Sept – 19 Oct ’13)

Robert Gwilym as Frank Bowman , Ron Donachie as Fergus McLintock and Maureen Beattie as Isobel McArthur

Image by Douglas McBride

“The production is a mixed bag in most regards.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

Ian Rankin is no stranger to Edinburgh’s criminal underworld –fictionally, of course. Inspector Rebus, Rankin’s most famous literary creation, is known to millions as the slightly off-beat but loveable curmudgeon, for whom this city’s cobbled streets are home. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that his theatrical debut (in collaboration with the Lyceum’s own Mark Thomson) is firmly rooted in this world.

It is twenty five years since the conviction of Alfred Chalmers for the murder and mutilation of four young Edinburgh women (there are definite comparisons to be made with the BBC’s hit series The Fall). This, combined with her thirtieth anniversary of being on the force, provokes Superintendent Isobel McArthur (Maureen Beattie) to reflect on what proved a land mark case in her career; or, more specifically, on a nagging doubt she has harboured since that day. Dredging up the past, however, reveals a well of raw emotions in both her closest work colleagues and her only daughter, Alexandra.

The production is a mixed bag in most regards. On the one hand, much of the writing is disappointingly predictable – not simply in terms of the plot, but also the inclusion of well-worn topics such as sexism in the police, the role of a policeman’s ‘hunch’ in conviction, and the bureaucratic barrier of paperwork that stands between policemen and ‘real police work’; a commentary that fails to really add any new angles on these issues. On the other, some of the writing is delicious – finding its strongest moments in scenes of quippy character interaction.

Similarly, a handful of characters were intensely believable – Philip Whitchurch’s portrayal of Alfred Chalmers was magnetic, managing to baffle the audience and leave us in a confused state, somewhere between terror and sympathy. But, at the other end of the spectrum, Sara Vickers (Alexandra) was lumped with a caricature of a teenage girl, whose mood swings between being angsty and angry, and as horny as a bitch in heat, leave her little room for development.

An area of no doubt, however, was staging – which was certainly the production’s strongest suit. The three room revolve worked incredibly well, particularly with the addition of corridors which provided both a realistic edge and an extra dimension to the performance. Furthermore, the soundtrack, ranging from a lamenting violin to Psycho inspired string segments, did much to add dramatic tension in scenes and maintain atmosphere between them; combining well with projections that slowly built a visual backstory for the audience.

Dark Road has the beginnings of a good production, but there is work to be done. It would benefit from some trimming – particularly in the first half, where certain scenes and ideas dragged on too long – and a more careful concealment of the plot to avoid the predictability that currently plagues it. As it stands, Dark Road is middle of the road.

Reviewer: Madeleine Ash (Seen 28 September)

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