First published in The Times, Thursday July 11
One of the pleasures of taking in several performances in one stretch at Pitlochry lies in the sheer variety of the summer season repertoire. This year, that sense of variety seems turbocharged, with everything from the musical revival of Summer Holiday to the amiable froth of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and the heavyweight allegory of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the mix.
If these differing moods require a certain adjustment on the part of the audience from one show to the next, the physical transformation of the staging can be just as remarkable. In contrast to the detailed realism of his work on Blithe Spirit, Adrian Rees’s design for The Crucible strips the stage back to its extremities, while Johanna Town contributes eerily stark lighting.
Pic: Douglas McBride
The extra scope is needed in artistic director Elizabeth Newman’s calling-card production, not only to accommodate the full 17-strong ensemble, but also for the presence of a huge bridge, modelled on Pitlochry’s community suspension bridge which hovers over the action. Its inclusion here is striking without being obtrusive, casting a benign local icon in an ominous light while being eloquent about the parallels between 1692 Salem and the world outside the theatre.
Newman’s vision of a community pitched into turmoil is the most persuasive element here. Cast members linger in the shadows during individual scenes, generating a mood of bustle and people living in close proximity to each other, which makes the spiral of distrust as the witch trials gather pace and the community succumbs to hysteria all the more agonising. We believe, for the most part, in these characters and their shifting relationships.
Pic: Douglas McBride
As the leads are all strong, so the production’s centre of gravity keeps shifting. Harry Long makes for a simmering John Proctor, though tender in his scenes with Claire Dargo’s quietly affecting Elizabeth. Fiona Wood conveys the mix of mean-girl vindictiveness and vulnerability in the accuser Abigail Williams. Deirdre Davis plays Danforth with a light touch that makes the deputy governor all the more chilling. Some of the flashier elements of the production, including lighting effects and elements of the music, prove extraneous. Newman’s production is at its most powerful in its displays of raw emotion.