Saoirse Ronan, Ciaran Hinds and Jim Norton co-star in an utterly spell-biding new staging of Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible on Broadway. Playing Abigail Williams, the ruthless teenage manipulator who sends half a town to the gallows, Ronan's new role is about as far from Brooklyn's sensitive Eilis Lacey as it's possible to get. Cahir O'Doherty reviews Ronan’s sterling Broadway debut.
From the moment she first appears in Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible, it's obvious to the audience that Abigail Williams, the teenage girl with a glint of steel in her gaze, spells trouble. In fact, she spells it out in capital letters.
As played by Saoirse Ronan, 21, Abigail is a force of nature, the kind of nature that knocks down anyone in her path. Abigail, we learn, is the former maid to farmer John Proctor (Ben Whishaw) and his wife Elizabeth (Sophie Okonedo) and was instantly (and understandably) relived of her duties when it became clear she was having an affair with John.
It doesn't take the audience long to figure out that Abigail has not, as they say, moved on. Instead she has asked Tituba, a kindly black slave from Barbados, to perform a voodoo spell to kill Elizabeth so that she can take her place at John's side.
So in one sense Ronan's playing a kind of 17th century mean girl, about as far from her recent Oscar nominated turn as young emigrant Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn as it's possible to get.
But in another sense she's just a heartbroken lover who was cruelly misled by an older and much more experienced man, one who didn't even have the strength himself to break things off before they got too heated (or the strength to resist the temptation in the first place).
How you feel about Abigail, how you feel about what happens to her and what she does to extract her revenge are really at the heart of the play and this production. From the outset Miller doesn't make it easy on the audience, reminding us that, no matter how ruthless Abigail becomes, there are multiple sides to this tragic story.
Things are set in motion early when Abigail invites some of the local girls to join her in her magic ritual deep in the woods to remove her romantic rival. But they are spotted mid-act by Reverend Parris, the busy-body minister of Salem's church. Parris breaks up their ritual only to discover that one of the girls, Ruth Putnam, has fallen into a weird and unshakable trance.
Is she bewitched? Is she in shock? Or is she just a victim of the hysteria with which her community responds to magic? Abigail knows the truth about Ruth, but she waits until she's unobserved to command her friend to snap out of it.
As the play progresses Ronan shows us some unforgettable glints of the hard steel that's lurking just below Abigail’s innocent schoolgirl demeanor in moments that are both unexpected and unsettling. Smart as a whip, she's used to finding the strings and pulling them in any gathering, and when she's not in control she's plotting how to take control.
It would be easy for Ronan to make her character a one note out and out villain, but instead she gives us someone who is unmoored by the ferocity of her own desire. Lust can be almost as potent a force as love Ronan reminds us, and Abigail’s passion for John Proctor is complicated by the simple fact that it's just as molten and returned.
The heat that erupts between Ronan and Whishaw onstage shows us what no one else in Salem knows: that all of the calamity that's about to fall on the town has it's origins in a thwarted affair. Whishaw's Proctor is both attracted and repulsed by Abigail's erotic intensity, seeing the danger but unable to stop himself.
But Reverend Parris' meddling has already set the events in motion, since he's called in Reverend John Hale, a sanctimonious witch-finder who's involvement creates a cycle of accusation and persecution that can't be stopped.
Rumors have reached the village that the girls have conjured demons and the public won't be satisfied until everyone involved is brought to trial and hanged. Of course it's Abigail who first recognizes the power she has just been handed. All she has to do is claim that anyone in the community is a witch to have them tried and executed.
It's not long before Elizabeth Proctor finds herself named in court. This is Abigail’s endgame, and Ronan shows us every side of her manipulating, controlling persona. Watching her, the way she riles up the town and plays to all their deepest prejudices (the better to suit her own ends) is to understand why some people find Donald Trump such a magnetic figure. Abigail is remorseless. She plays on other people's weaknesses like a piano. She can get them to say and do things that they know are not right.
In the background characters like the elderly Giles Corey (Jim Norton) help put a human face on Abigail’s rapidly increasing number of victims. Giles is a simple man who cannot understand his wife's interest in reading books, and because he says so he accidentally casts a cloud of suspicion over her until she finds herself fatally accused.
Norton, one of Broadway's most dependably brilliant actors, brings humor, humanity and great pathos to each scene he appears in and helps anchor the whole production. He's powerfully assisted by Ciaran Hinds who plays Deputy Governor Danforth, the man who oversees all the Salem witch trials.
Hinds slowly mines the fanaticism that's underneath his character’s placid surface in a slow-burn performance that is perfectly judged. When Danforth reveals he would rather hang ten thousand people than flout one line of the law, most of what we need to know about his pitiless nature is starkly revealed.
The cast is uniformly excellent and they trust Miller's text, which stands among the most important works of theater of the 20th century, to speak for itself. But director Ivo van Hove can't resist some theatrical tinkering of his own.
He has a girl fly into the air inexplicably. He has writing appear by magic on a school blackboard, and he even has a wolf like dog take to the stage, all in service to an eerie atmosphere.
But Miller and his central characters know that Abigail’s charges are all fraud, and they are somewhat undermined somewhat by van Hove's dramatic images. If they know -- and we know -- that none of this is real, why is a girl flying, why are strange words appearing on blackboards, and how and when exactly have Abigail and her bewitched friends worked out complex choreography moves that are timed in perfect unison?
It's a dangerous gambit for a play that reminds us that what looks good is not necessarily a corollary for what is good. Thankfully, though, there are few of these overly directorial moments in the production, and instead van Hove trusts his actors to carry the magnificent text.
As Elizabeth, John Proctor's tragic wife, Okonedo is superb as a wronged woman who grapples with her own anger as she is asked to forgive her errant spouse. Whishaw's heartbreak at having disappointed her is equally moving, and all the while Miller shows us what happens to good people when fraud and political calculation overrule good sense.
Ronan has proved she has the skill to command a Broadway house on her first theatrical outing. That's a remarkable debut for the two time Oscar nominated actress, who can put the anxiety of wondering how she'd fare in live performance behind her now. The Crucible is a triumph.
The Crucible is now playing at the Walter Kerr, 219 West 48th Street, New York. For tickets call 877-250-2929.