Review by George Fleeton
The new Lyric theatre, with its recognisable Belfast red brick exterior and its immense floor to ceiling windows, stands out – with its strikingly wing-tipped fly tower – like a landlocked lighthouse in the darkest days of our latest recession.
The wood-clad interior of African teak is so like the brilliant new opera house in Wexford (which used Canadian black walnut) as to be uncanny, while the skewed-quadrilateral auditorium and the proximity of the audience to the proscenium also bring to mind the intimacy of a classic Venetian opera house.
Of vital importance then was the appropriateness of the drama chosen to open this magnificent and innovative performance space, and on May 5th no one was left in any doubt that Conall Morrison’s production of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible fitted the bill perfectly.
What we got was a major piece of American theatre from 1953 which, regardless of some specious arguments about the play’s enhanced relevance today, remains firmly rooted in its time, place and action, namely Miller’s bludgeoning critique of McCarthyism, at whose hands he and his friends had suffered.
That’s the nature of this beast, which is not Miller’s best play, and the most inspired production imaginable won’t change that.
And this production was inspired. The spartan set and puritan costumes, from which all distracting colours had been drained, allowed our attention to be focused uninterrupted on this still fascinating melodrama.
Morrison’s decisions to give the piece without expurgation, to allow his cast of Irish actors to declaim in their own accents, to choreograph in to each of the four acts the physicality of a contact sport, to have us witness some breathtaking scene changes, to establish a memorable series of tableaux throughout which, for a second or two, had the effect of a freeze-frame, a pause just long enough for us to think about what we were seeing and hearing – the end result of all this meant that the imagination invested in Miller’s text, and mediated through this production of it, reached out and unlocked our collective and personal imaginations and so the circuit of catharsis was complete.
One only experiences this when present with others at live theatre and opera, nowhere else, least of all in front of the range of barking and pervasive screens with which our imaginative lives have been polluted and dulled.
A cast of twenty players delivered this piece as if their lives and sanity depended on it. Patrick O’Kane (John Proctor) and Alan Stanford (Deputy-Governor Danforth) had climbed inside their characters, walked around in that private space, felt the texture and emerged to tell us all about it. Catherine Cusack (Goodwife Proctor) gave a somewhat understated performance on the night, and light relief was a touch overplayed by Lalor Roddy (Giles Corry), more Barry Fitzgerald than Greek chorus. The cameos of veterans Roma Tomelty, Frankie McCafferty and Roy Heayberd were spot on. For the younger actors – especially Aoife Duffin and, Charlotte McCurry – this must have been a career-enhancing encounter with a world class production.
In Michael Reeves’ nearly forgotten and much underestimated film Witchfinder General (1968), Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a 17th century lawyer and self-appointed witchfinder general who tasks himself to root out sorcery and witchcraft, often where none existed, by taking advantage of the confusion spread by the English Civil War.
In that story’s opening scenes there is this chilling piece of self-justifying palaver, which resonates neatly with the last impression one retains of the Lyric’s production of The Crucible:
“Lo! ‘Tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years.
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears
Sits in a theatre to see
A play of hopes and fears
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.”
The Crucible continues until June 5th.
Box Office: 028 9038 1081.
Book online: www.lyrictheatre.co.uk
George Fleeton teaches opera and cinema in higher education.