Theatre Review: The Crucible (Aurora Theatre)

Arthur Miller’s profound classic on the Salem witch trials in the 17th century America is still one of the best written plays in contemporary theatre history. I can absolutely endorse it after seeing several different productions over the years.

Photo Credit: Aaron T. Michelson

This year in Hong Kong, Aurora Theatre premiered its own production of The Crucible at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre Blackbox on last Thursday, and it still proves that.

However, the reason why I can simply prove that is not because of how the production lifts up to the text. In fact, it is because of what the production, directed by Nicole Garbellini, lacks that I finally see how Mr Miller meticulously calculates the three-hour tightly structured play with its characters.

And what the production lacks is its consistency in character reading.

Rating: 3/5

To be honest, I did not hold much expectation for this production of The Crucible as Aurora is a semi-professional theatre company in Hong Kong for English speakers, and to tackle this giant of a play by them is a challenge. I would say this production of The Crucible is done adequately with some good performances from a few actors, but overall, it is the vision and the reading of the play and its characters that really pulls me out from the story I am familiar.

Miss Garbellini’s approach to the text is simply old-fashioned. All the actions we can see on stage is following very closely of what Mr Miller has written in the play. It is not a problem to do so since the weight of Mr Miller’s text is already a good drive for the play to accelerate. To exude the realistic approach in order to show the dramatic effect of the play is a sensible take. However, this is also the problem of this production.

It bares the skin of all the performances on stage, and this is where I see the shortcomings in the acting department.

Mr Miller’s play includes four acts (this production follows the script of the film version in 1996 though, which includes the dialogue between John Proctor and Abigail Williams in the wilderness before Act 3), and these four acts are highly intact with each other, simply with a thread of the emotional journey that John has to go through along the acts.

Everything happens in the play has to get back to John directly or indirectly, with Abigail flirting with him, his wife Elizabeth being arrested, his friends and neighbours who he has known them for a long time are all prosecuted and executed, and at the end, when he is accused by his servant Mary Warren, he is in a desperate state where he just flips to the other side.

Photo Credit: Aaron T. Michelson

A play of course can be read by different angles, but if The Crucible is structured with simply a journey of how John has fallen, then John should be a character that the audience can relate to, and this has to do not only with the actor who plays John but also the actors who play the characters around him as an ensemble.

The relationships between these characters are better to be constructed through a sense of natural delivery as well as a consistency in an emotional way, so that the audience at the end can have a cathartic moment, to grief for John even though he is not a hero. After all, Mr Miller is a tragedian for flawed protagonists.

That requires the depth of the reading of the characters, and though all the actors are skilful enough to play the characters, I just feel cold with most their deliveries of the characters’ textures. All the actors are full of potentials, but they do need more grounded and consistent choices so I can see their journeys along the acts, both emotionally and physically. Not to mention some actors who play minor characters display caricatures of their roles, simply diminishing the weight of the scenes in the play.

Tom McLean, heading the main role of John, though performed with skills, just keeps pulling me out from John’s emotional journey with staging and physical actions that are not fully conceived, especially in Act 2 and 3, thus it makes me being reluctant to emote for the ending. Mr McLean clearly is a potential, and his build definitely fits the role with such a dark voice for a thespian. He also has various moments which I really can see the urgency of his character. If only he can keep those grounded moments through out, that would be perfect.

Photo Credit: Aaron T. Michelson

Elizabeth, played by Davina Lee Carrette, suffers the same problem. Its delivery somehow shortened the strength of how this character can be, a faithful wife bearing the secret of her husband’s affair, while supporting half of the family. She can do way more than what John can do, can suffer more than what John can suffer, and with that, I do not think the emotional relationship between her and John is that distant in Act 2, with their arguments sounding artificial and one-dimensional based on her animated actions.

And this unfortunately navigates the imbalanced tone for the rest of the show. No matter how heated and carefully staged Act 3 is, and how John and Elizabeth express their griefs in Act 4 with much more grounded emotions, the urgency is lost already, because I do not feel that it is an urgent matter anymore due to the fact that the choices to show these characters’s journeys as a whole are not grounded enough as well.

There are a few actors who are exceptionally good in the play though. David Mersault’s Judge Danforth is brilliantly played with fierce delivery, as good as Jack Ellis’s rendition in the 2014 Old Vic production. Mary Warren, played by Eimear ‘Mimi’ Burns, also has her moment in Act 3, with a rare urgency of her character in this production. I dare say, if one puts Miss Burns’s Mary in Ivo van Hove’s Broadway production in 2016, it will have an even better third act.

However, Hamish Campbell who plays Rev. John Hale, another character like John which appears in all four acts, sparks the biggest fireworks in the night. He is one of the rare members in the ensemble that really holds down to the end of the play, and I can see him bringing distraught at the end with grounded emotions.

After all, The Crucible is such a well-written play, that even if you delivery it in its utmost basic fashion with adequate delivery, it will still be riveting to be experienced. Aurora’s production certainly hits that mark. Yet, I do expect more in-depth reading of characters and much more grounded performances to fully support Mr Miller’s masterpiece.

Production Information:

The Crucible at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre Blackbox
An Aurora Theatre Production
Through 19th February 2016
Tickets: URBTIX

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