Review: The Crucible – The Lyric Theatre, Belfast ****

Dissent brings accusation, trial and injustice. From playwrights and actors caught up in a 50s hunt for reds under the bed, to those arrested for trying to tell the truth about The War on Terror, or peace campaigners in Northern Ireland silenced long before the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles. When a society (or a society within a society) decides everyone must conform then truth and justice are casualties along with those who object to the madness.

Written at the height of hearings by the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee, Arthur Miller’s brilliant demolishment of the arguments of intolerance centres on the false accusations of witchcraft made by frightened and sexually frustrated teenage girls. These unreliable witnesses are believed by the power hungry clerics in the 17th century America settlement of Salem who wish to glorify themselves in the eyes of their God.

In the recreated Lyric Theatre’s opening production Conall Morrison directs a faithful and gripping version of Miller’s lengthy and at times preachy modern classic in Sabine Linehan’s symphony in wood panelling set. The new auditorium’s timber panelled interior merges into the claustrophobic setting of John Procter’s home, courtroom and prison.

The cast give the production its strength with the subtle and not so subtle human emotions that convincingly bind the relationships together.

Patrick O’Kane as a darkly clad sexually attractive John Procter dominates proceedings as the farmer who is slowly drawn into the insanity of the witch hunt through his involvement with his family’s maid the sexually proactive Abigail (Aoife Duffin) as she tries to draw him away from his nice but dull wife Elizabeth (Catherine Cusack).

The cast give the production its strength with the subtle and not so subtle human emotions

The black slave Tituba (Angela Phinnimore) is brilliantly unsettling as she desperately tries to wriggle out of the accusations of devilry, while there are further fine performances from Lalor Roddy as Giles Corey and Alan Stanford as Judge Danford adding humour, pathos and injustice in equal measure. Added theatricality is given by the dramatic scene changes incorporating music, sound and lighting as the back wall spins around to reveal another equally darkly timbered setting for the unfolding drama.

Ruairi Conaghan enjoyed himself as the evil witchfinder Rev Hale as he finds the devil’s work practically everywhere – and skilfully conveyed the 18th century biblical arguments that seem so ridiculous today. The firebrand evangelist coupled with a number of Ulster accents in the cast gave uncomfortable overtones of the politics of the last three decades of the province when tolerance of dissenting voices has not always been witnessed. These were perhaps the only reference Morrison makes to the theatre production’s backdrop.

The choice of the troubling story of paranoia in a religiously bigoted community is a pertinent one for the new Lyric Theatre, perched on its dramatic slope overlooking the River Lagan. With Martin Lynch’s Dockers and Janet Behan’s Brendan At The Chelsea to follow, the theatre looks set for a successful opening season.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 5th June 2011.
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