>the crucible by nus theatre studies programme

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 24 oct 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>rating: unrated

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some indefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


When one thinks of or watches a production of Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE, one inevitably constructs an anticipation of the final acts. The mass hysteria, the screams of Abigail's company in the courtroom, Proctor's impassioned outcry, and the cries of the innocent echoing those accused during the period of the McCarthyism 'Red Scare', mark the most disturbing yet powerful scenes in performance history. It is these moments which often define the success of any production of 'The Crucible', for it is in these moments that theatrical artifice can be exposed. To evoke the irrationality, mass frenzy, and rampant fear so characteristic of the play, the audience must be incorporated into the dramatic action and caught in the narrative movement: the invisibility of spirits must be made 'visible' and Proctor's poignant discourse must "move the hearers to collection". Thus, for example, an exaggerated staging of hysteria would break the curtains of fiction with comic absurdity, while the dramatisation of these moments with energy lacking would spell certain failure in enrapturing the audience in the senselessness.

A delicate balance between these extremes needs to be achieved and a rhythm of performance needs to be sought. The NUS Theatre Studies Programme's dramatisation of THE CRUCIBLE's Acts 3 (and 4) was handled discerningly with neither over-exaggeration nor a lack of intensity. The courtroom scene was tastefully dramatised and the confusion, terror, and fear caused by the wails and screams were effectively conveyed. The dramatic fiction of the moment and the doubly fictive illusion of the spirits became, at that juncture, believable - the audience shifted their gaze to Abigail's gesturing of Mary Warren's 'spirit' (which incidentally was where I was seated. For a moment, I felt incorporated into the dramatic space of the fiction and the whirligig of emotion as Abigail's cold and mystified stare penetrated the illusory safety of my box-seat).

>>'THE CRUCIBLE was not only pleasing to watch but moving in its climactic moments, perhaps because of the earnestness of these student-performers'

THE CRUCIBLE is the final year project of graduating students from the programme, and there was earnestness in this presentation of Miller's demanding play. The production opened promisingly with a tribalistic dance in the forest. Though relatively simple in its choreography, the twirling bodies, accompanied by evocative music, successfully introduced the horde mentality that bound and entranced the girls. However, the opening energies and rhythm descended into a sluggish pace with the first two acts playing on a dull note. There were several points in which the forward motion of plot development was impeded by the actors' seemingly excessive pondering (on their actions) and pausing (between lines). The third and fourth acts successfully picked up in intensity and culminated in a climactic courtroom scene. The intensity faltered little and was maintained with Proctor's admittance and heartrending rejection of his confession.

THE CRUCIBLE's dramatic reliance on the verbal text, as a motivation for its plot and thematic concerns, is the "hot fire" which melts down all concealment of theatrics: the exploitation of period costume and custom, the construction of the mise-en-scene, among other rhetorics of staging, are all secondary to the preeminence awarded to the verbal text. A successful staging of THE CRUCIBLE requires a corporealisation of the verbal text on the stage. The text's embedded metaphors and invocative lines must assume signification from page to stage. This marks the (influential) power of Miller's controversial play. It is thus no easy task to perform THE CRUCIBLE, with its often dense and lengthy lines. The actors were laudable for they rarely faltered in delivering the lines. However, any successful dramatisation, in Western theatre, requires more than just the unadulterated delivery of the text. John Proctor had problems with voice projection and diction; Reverend Parris had an unusual accent of inverted tonality and Francis Nurse was clearly uncomfortable with English as a medium of communication. Others had apparently overlooked the fact that drama is an engagement not merely amongst the dramatis personae but with the audience. They were frequently too soft to be heard and lines were often muffled. Allusions, puns, and anecdotes were lost in the murmur and audience's (incessant) chatting during the first two acts. The performance, and performers, played in a different league in the second half when almost all the actors became much more lucid and precise in their articulation. It seemed as though the dramatic 'reality', as a present reality, awoke in the actors only in the second half.

Despite these distinct flaws, several of the actors were no less than professional. They inhabited their roles comfortably, with clear confidence and conviction. Edmond Choy was extremely impressive in portraying a Reverend Hale who descends from self-possession to guilt, remorse and self-doubt. Choy's eloquence and calculated gestures were proficient, often over-shadowing the lead actors. Mary Warren, the pivotal character whose defection to Abigail's party proves to be the catalyst for Proctor's downfall, is among the most challenging of characters to portray. This challenge, however, proved little to Qiu Dimin who skillfully and convincingly portrayed a dim-witted and timid Mary succumbing to the pressures of her psychologically overpowering peers. It is in Mary that we can identify our own fear of standing up against the voice of the majority, especially when the majority wields immense power. It is perhaps here that we can see the ways in which Miller's play holds a mirror up to our (Singaporean) condition.

Although the political contexts of the play are no longer applicable, its social relevance remains powerful and echoes throughout contemporary and personal histories. Director Ted Chen believes that "the play is not just an attack on the sociopolitical condition, but its impact is on the individual's moral honesty and conscience […] the shamefulness of human history is not caused by 'evil spirits' from the external world, but from the evil desires coming out of our own sins and ignorance." Chen however believes that the play is and should end with a hopeful tune - there will be a "re-emergence of souls renewed from those who sacrificed their lives to struggle with the consequences of their own scenes." Chen's more positive interpretation thus saw an additional scene staged at the end of the play. Elizabeth's emergence from the ruins of a community destroyed by false faith and lies, infant in arms, against the backdrop of the hung body of her husband, and in almost perfect symmetry, became a symbolic moment of rebirth and regeneration.

THE CRUCIBLE was not only pleasing to watch but moving in its climactic moments, perhaps because of the earnestness of these student-performers. Beyond the concepts of rhetoric and staging, Miller's play is 'human' and it is this level of humanness - earnesty, honesty, integrity, truthfulness - in which Proctor's final lines, "now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs", reverberate with significance that transcends time and space.