Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic, a titan in the canon of American drama, found its home in the Manoel Theatre’s calendar of events this season. Conjuring up hair-raising scenes of the 17th century’s infamous Salem Witch Hunt, the play’s portrayal of hypocrisy, hysteria, and opportunistic power grabs lend The Crucible an inescapable weight that can still be felt over half a century later. America’s ‘red panic’ of the 1940s and 50s saw the rise of McCarthyism – the practice of making rash accusations of treason without evidence.

It is from this frightening phenomenon that Miller drew his inspiration for the play. The decades have come and gone since Miller’s work originally premiered on Broadway stages, but in today’s world of fake news and trial by media, The Crucible is no less relevant.

Directed by Sean Buhagiar on behalf of the Manoel Theatre, The Crucible opened to a stark stage, as tilted and off-kilter as the morals and values of the play’s central characters. The towering walls on either side of the stage set the tone for inescapable nature of the play’s central tragedy, closing in further as the noose (both proverbial and literal) began to tighten on protagonist John Proctor (Kenneth Spiteri).

It’s clear from the sheer detail put into the technical aspects of this production that no stone was left unturned by the Manoel Theatre’s production team.

From the subtle, but sumptuous, lighting and sound designs, to the spectacular set itself, Buhagiar and his team were meticulous in creating the imposing atmosphere of the production.

However, beautiful as they all were, I feel like the doubtlessly extensive budget afforded to the national theatre would have been absolutely wasted if the casting of the play’s central roles hadn’t hit the mark.

Luckily, in Spiteri, Buhagiar found the perfect anchor for the production. Spiteri’s performance as John Proctor was intense and engaging throughout the play’s considerable runtime. Guilt-ridden and simmering with barely-concealed rage, Spiteri commanded the stage in every scene.

An impressive addition to the Manoel’s season

Casting this play must have been no small feat. Malta’s theatre ranks aren’t exactly dwindling, but a cast of 25-strong can be a tall order. I was particularly impressed by both Nadia Vella as a fiery, petulant Abigail Williams, and Simone Ellul in a sombre and thoughtful turn as Elizabeth Proctor. As Proctor’s scorned one-time mistress and his wife respectively, both women shared the weight of much of the play’s heavier scenes with Spiteri, and they shoulder the load admirably.

Hounded on all sides by the law and the church, which are in fact one and the same, Proctor has a rather fearsome troop of accusers at his heels in this production. Stephen Oliver was on fine form, snarling and snapping away as Judge Danforth, while Michael Mangion’s fretting and devout Reverend Parris unwittingly started the fire which consumed his congregation. Edward Caruana Galizia gave a powerful performance as Reverend Hale, breathing a rare moment of humanity into the play’s growing hysteria.

Unfortunately, with so many names and faces in the play’s extensive cast list, it’s difficult to give everyone their due, although all clearly worked hard. However, of the supporting cast, attention really ought to be paid to Marylu Coppini’s sympathetic performance as pious and doomed innocent Rebecca Nurse, as well as Roberta Cefai’s promising performance as Mary Warren.

Indeed, the strong performances from the cast did a lot to carry the play through its considerable runtime. Occupying the Manoel’s temporary stall seating area for upwards of three hours is unfortunately only slightly less torturous than being accused of witchcraft.

Miller’s original text is by no means a short tread across the boards, but if there is one thing I think the whole audience could fault in this production, the length would certainly be it.

While the first act felt like is kept its pace well, the second unfortunately seemed to lag somewhat, which sadly went quite a long way to undercut otherwise strong elements of the production. As a director, Buhagiar has a great sense for visuals and he can certainly get the results he wants from his production team. However, certain elements of the play seemed to lose focus and jar with the tone of the production. The decision to include a spoken snippet of the Rolling Stone’s 1968 rock classic Sympathy for the Devil was a baffling inclusion that really did nothing but break the scene’s sense of immersion.

Despite the unfortunate drag of the second act, The Crucible did enough to keep me spellbound thanks to strong efforts from the entire company. Frightful, haunting, and powerful, this classic play was an impressive addition to the Manoel’s season.

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