Set in Salem, a devoutly Christian community is suddenly gripped with fears of witchcraft that soon grows into the sinister prosecution of many of their inhabitants, fuelled by the direction of the spurned, selfish Abigail. Arthur Miller’s paranoia play, The Crucible, is a parable for many things: adultery, McCarthyism, religious extremism, and so on. However, in this adaptation by The Scottish Ballet, it is clearly a story of tyranny.
Tyranny against the other and innocents, and the hypocrisy inherent in systems that strive towards justice. It is a powerful, agonising story of what happens when responsibilities are shirked and ignored in favour of blame, and the choreography is the perfect vehicle for expressing the enveloping terror that manifests as a result.
The themes of repression and responsibility are expertly expressed through the medium of dance in this ballet, which is a masterclass in capturing a tense, and often complicated, atmosphere through movement alone. What is most striking about the choreography is the repetition of dances and gestures. I heard a woman behind me complain that it demonstrated a lack of variety, however I firmly believe that the decision to emphasise sequence and repetition was genius, as it not only introduces the idea of community, but also highlights its failings, as perfectly in-sync physical motifs and signs appear again and again in more twisted situations.
It demonstrates how the sense of togetherness that this group are proud of, and cultivated spirituality, is eventually not enough to save lives. My favourite example was the prayer circle in the First Act in which the town’s inhabitants move together through a sequence of sharp steps to illustrate their connection to each other and God. Even when the narrative gets progressively messier, these iconic movements recur often, emphasising what was lost and also assisting the audience in understanding what is being communicated: pleas for forgiveness, for speech, and justice.
There are plenty of other memorable moments of dance throughout the show, and the standard of performance is impressive, gripping to watch. You hold your breath in apprehension when Abigail (Constance Devernay) and her band of impressionable girlfriends flutter on the tips of their point shoes when they are in over their heads, anxious and fragile. The infamous John Proctor (Nicholas Shoesmith) rarely dances alone, always bending or mirroring others with grand, sweeping movements until he is in prison and made to defend himself, a choice which neatly sums up his character as a man unwilling to admit his faults or accept responsibility until it is too late. Even the dances of the imprisoned women are astounding, as the choreography becomes increasingly jagged, their fluid arcs interrupted by abrupt jerks and cries as if fighting their own bodies.
The set design is minimalistic, but effective: four boards joined at a cross that become walls, a window, a dark forest for spirits. It creates a great sense of claustrophobia, and voyeurism, as often it feels as though the audience is watching what happens behind closed doors through a crack in its foundations. The score flits between soaring, mournful strings and crashing percussion, and is overall an atmospheric companion to the dancers.
Although it is sometimes difficult to follow along with the specifics of the story that is being told, it is undeniable that the production has managed to capture the intensity and fear that permeates Miller’s narrative. It’s fascinating to witness.
The Crucible is on at the Edinburgh Playhouse until the 5th of August – buy tickets here