by Dominic Allen
The Crucible is one of the iconic plays of the twentieth century and, like many iconic plays, it is a beast. The scale of the play was something we were all palpably aware of as we gathered for pre-rehearsal coffee on day one in the cafe of the Jerwood Space in London. The size of the cast alone runs up to a whopping twenty people and Miller has carefully crafted entire lives, motivations and machinations for every single character they play; no one is wasted. We crammed into our temporary rehearsal room upstairs ready to embark on the mammoth task we are about; realising Miller’s timeless masterpiece in the very theatre in which it received its European première in 1954.
It’s important first of all to get to know the people who are joining you on the journey, and on the first day there’s not only the cast but also some of the people who will be working hard behind the scenes to bring the play alive – the design, the marketing, the music, the stage management, etc. It is in this moment that we begin the fumbling attempts to learn some interesting facts about one another as well as retain nearly thirty people’s names for longer than ten minutes before leaping into a read-through. However, by the end of the week, it starts to feel as though we’ve known each other our whole lives and slowly, surely, our sense of community grows – and it is that very idea of community, we shall discover, which the whole play revolves around.
So, with practicalities and logistics out of the way, we set about weaving the strands of rehearsal that will follow and lead us ultimately to the final production. This first week is all about tentative exploration – trying things out, scratching the surface of the text and seeing where the play takes us. Tom Morris gets people on their feet for the read-through and it has a dramatic effect; the play sweeps you along on an emotional tide that you are powerless to resist. It’s sometimes impossible to say what we’ll discover next as the week progresses. At some turns, doors open and vistas of possibility present themselves; other times we push and Arthur Miller pushes back. It’s exciting and full of potential either way. We spend a little time trying out singing a few psalms, with Peter Edwards doing his level best in composer Dave Price’s absence to teach tone deaf people like me some beautiful arrangements for them. The Associate Director, George Mann, begins his work in making us turn our bodies into storytelling tools and playing with the possibilities of movement such a large ensemble allows. The off-stage story we carry in our bodies, and the way our bodies interact in the space will be crucial to creating the sense of our living Salem community. Along with this, there is, of course, the delving into the rich and complex text – at times so straightforward seeming and plain speaking on the surface – it hides deep currents of drama that surge up unexpectedly as we read scenes.
Finally, to get a firm grip on this strange world, where The Devil looms large in the dark of the forest, and witchcraft is whispered of in every fire-lit homestead and draughty church, as well as the enduring parable-like nature of the tale, it is essential we begin to divide up areas of research. The list of topics is near endless: McCarthyism, Colonial Government, Puritanism, Witchcraft, Marxism, The Pilgrim Fathers, and so on. We carve them up between us to feed back at a later point and almost immediately most out-of-hours discussion drifts to the fascinating details we’ve come across that Miller must have surely known.
Bristol beckons at the end of the week as we move our rehearsals home to King Street and better weather, but we have begun! And one thing is most surely for certain – there’s a lot more to come than simply buckled shoes and big hats.
The Crucible plays in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre 8 Oct-7 Nov. Find out more, and book tickets, here.