On paper it seems a winning combination, the kind of production likely to make a splash: David Wenham as John Proctor in Arthur Miller's Salem tragedy, directed by exciting young associate artistic director, Sam Strong.
And yet this latest Melbourne Theatre Company production goes under with very little noise.
At a time when much verbal acid is being aimed at young directors and their lack of respect for the classics, it is strange to find among us an ambitious up-and-comer being respectful to a fault: this is a production which would have benefited from a more willing assault on its text.
The Crucible is, of course, Miller's allegory for McCarthyism and the American red scare of the 1950s, the insatiable hunt for communists which left many blameless lives ruined. Set in Massachusetts, 1692, the play is based on the Salem witch trials, and tells the story of John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth, good people ‑ though flawed in the ordinary way ‑ caught up in the rip-current of state-sanctioned hysteria, and eventually pulled under.
It is an enduring study of democracy corrupted by terror, written in a powerfully suggestive mock-Elizabethan, a toothy kind of argot out-of-time, and therefore timeless.
As a cautionary tale, its relevance to the polarising politics of today is astonishing.
"This is a sharp time now, a precise time", declares Danforth, the witch-hunting judge who holds noose in Salem. "We live no longer in the dusky afternoon."
For the likes of Danforth, the ever-precarious course of human progress requires a clear separation of good from evil. "A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between."
Perhaps the connection ‑ "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" ‑ is too direct? Humankind can only bear so much reality, especially on stage. We're still waiting for the definitive post-September 11 production. Perhaps now the moment has passed and we'll never get it? A sign of the artistic timidity of the times?
In any case, Sam Strong's production is colourless, out-of-focus, soft on the details and sorely wanting a firmer directorial hand, one capable of bringing together its talented cast and pointing them as one.
The design tends toward the abstract, with sheer white structures carving space from the encroaching backstage dim. Think of an all-white version of Ron Robertson-Swann so-called "yellow peril", the sculpture sitting just behind the MTC theatre. The spare few props and costumes suggest unostentatious rusticity, with a few anachronistic flourishes to keep the audience guessing.
The Crucible is set in spring, and Miller's vision is lurid with colours and evocations, from "purple smell" of lilacs, to the "reddish work done at night", from the "yellow bird" of invented visions, to "the whole green world" in flames. This vitality clashes with the stark black-and-white scene we're presented with by designer Dale Ferguson. For all that he captures something of the Puritan spirit, his Salem would seem more appropriate to a sombred, winter play. Moreover, there is a sense of stasis and frigid unease. This is not that restless world where the soil "is warm as blood" which Miller offers.
The eye tends to glide over this cool ensemble without finding a centre, and it is hard to follow the rhythms of the play. Often it is only through Kelly Ryall's dramatic sound design ‑ an impressive original score ‑ that the emotional climaxes can be discovered.
It's the same with the performances: unfocused posturing against a void. Wenham is good, to a point. Despite being made up like Tim Minchin and lacking the kind of forearms you might hope for on a Pilgrim father, he does convey a sense of stolid good sense and is convincing as a man wrestling with conscience. But he lacks vehemence and seems at times adrift. There's no heroic register. Anita Hegh as Elizabeth Proctor is better, and there is a gleam of saintliness in her performance, excepting her giant pash with David in the final scene.
Is there something of the "staged reading" about this production? It's a defensible decision to speak the text in "neutral" ‑ or domestic ‑ accents, but perhaps Strong has been too lax with his cast, letting them find their own dramatic approach to Miller's artificial Pilgrim prose. Among the cast are some very strong individual personalities ‑ Greg Stone, Brian Lipson, Julia Blake ‑ who often clash or overwhelm those with a less distinctive presence.
Among the children ‑ the little crazy children jangling the keys of the kingdom ‑ Sarah Ogden stands out as Mary Warren. Ogden is not the starriest of performers, but she has an exceptional stage brain and is sensitive to the needs of every scene. We've yet to see her stumble. Elizabeth Nabben as the young villain of the piece, Abigail, is superficially confident, but lacks the demented depths that might have been opened by a more incisive directorial vision. Nevertheless, the children ‑ despite not convincing us that they are children ‑ do provide several moments of genuine horripilation in their "pretended" fits, fits which go beyond pretence to a kind of contagious madness.
You could do worse than a staged reading of The Crucible, and the excellence of Miller's script comes through, despite everything, and though this falls well short of Strong's ambition for "the most moving version of The Crucible we've ever seen", there is nothing to cringe at in this production, which, if it suffers, suffers from a fear of doing harm, rather than any violence actually done.
Sam Strong on The Crucible