How to dance a dance of contrition? Jealousy, slander, hysteria and fear? Helen Pickett’s latest, more fleshed-out adaptation of Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible arrives at an interesting time, culturally, when the two most recent successful TV franchises focus on female protagonists: The Handmaid’s Tale and Killing Eve (the former focusing on misogyny and oppression, the latter, psychopathy and sexuality). She pulls the audience into the shadow psyche, by framing the Salem witch trials around the affair between servant Abigail Williams (Claire Souet) and affluent, married man John Proctor (Barnaby Rook Bishop) and consequently, the fall-out in their deeply religious Puritan community. This new production comes as part of Scottish Ballet’s half-century celebrations.
The two girls underpinning the piece are of course Abigail, with her tortured solos, clawing at her skirts as though her shameful sexual desires could be scrubbed away, and Tituba, Reverend Parris’ slave girl (wonderful guest soloist Katlyn Addison) who is literally brought to her knees through the pointing fingers of the religious leaders. Both are mired in shame, and crawl like wounded fawns, both suffer at the hands of the Puritan community. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the dark days of 1692, and now, as the Republicans sit in judgement on reproductive rights of women across America.
These new Puritans, initially, seem to bleed milk, the epitome of wholesome righteousness. There is a nod to circle dancing, where the only partner swapping occurs in a lively polka. In another scene of levity, the local girls play with shadow puppets, giggling and chattering. But these shadows are long, tapering and ominous. Crocodiles snap at the house of a happy couple.
Contrast this to the scene where the local girls dance ‘naked’ in the woods in a thrashing, whirling display of baccanalian bodies, a revelry of budding pubescence. Arthur Miller took us into the woods long before David Lynch. Even a child’s toy poppet becomes symbolic of evil, stuck with a pin, supposedly further evidence of witchcraft. Now, the girls scream and move in a morass of confusion, squirming en pointe, feet twitching like rats.
Pickett’s rendering of Elizabeth (Bethany Kingsley-Garner) and John’s relationship, attempting to reconcile to married life after the scandal, through whimsical pas de deux scenes, are arguably not as interesting as during the second half, where her choreography really soars and the couple fight for their lives and each other. The silencing of the girls with preachers’ palms outstretched in piety, and mouths covered, is given a deeper exploration further along, as the fathers appear like a murder of crows, arms outstretched and flapping, closing in together like a forcefield, a steel circle against the girls. Where Jamiel Laurence as Reverend Parris merely insinuates, with fingers pointed and arms raised to the heavens, it falls to Rimbaud Patron as Danforth to bring a more brooding muscularity to his judgement, with bolder gestures which almost engulf the space. It all falls just the right side of histrionic.
Of course, the design is outstanding, a Gothic coup de theatre. Emma Kingsbury and David Flynn’s massive steel slats bear down on the space like a prison cell, and there’s an incredible set of hangman’s ropes suspended from the ceiling, all grouped together like a sinister parade. It’s all complemented by Peter Salem’s score, which is is simply gorgeous: sinewy, sensual strings for the illicit couplings, soloists singing pure, elegiac solos, and laptop glitches for the girls’ descent into pagan, lustful movements. There is—forgive the pun—timpani for the devil; crashes of percussion as the conspiracy deepens, woodwind for innocence.
In short, “The Crucible” seems a good fit for autumn nights, where nights are shorter, leaves litter the ground and the cold and dark starts to set in. It’s raw, creepy and emotive. The whole ensemble’s on fire, and seem unstoppable. Hallowe’en has come a few weeks early, we may as well embrace it.