I wasn’t going to write anything about this. But now I’ve read Robert Cushman’s review of Soulpepper’s Crucible, and now I’m incensed; so now I have to write about this.
Soulpepper’s Crucible is a very well-acted performance that is almost entirely devoid of ideas. It shows little evidence of direction beyond the coaching of actors, and it fails completely at complicating a play that needs complicating very badly. At worst, Miller’s piece can be stultifyingly two-dimensional, and this production does nothing to alleviate this problem inherent in its text.
I don’t really want to go on and on. As I said, I wasn’t going to say anything. But then review after review after review appeared praising the show in glowing terms, and eventually enough was just enough. So I’ll talk about the moment the Soulpepper staging lost me completely; but I’ll also say a word or two about our critics.
Second things first. Let me send you on a bit of a well-ordered goose chase. Read this first: it’s the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner writing about why so few contemporary theatre critics focus on actors’ performances in their reviews these days. And what they write about instead.
And then, sample these:
That’s just the major papers — there’s a bevy of blog reviews as well, all in the same vein. So what do we learn? We get a bit of plot summary, some backstory (McCarthy, McCarthy, McCarthy), and name-by-name commentary on performances. A bit of descriptive language about the set. And then some platitudinous remark about direction: “Albert Schultz’s Soulpepper production has tremendous grip” (Cushman); “There are even problems hearing some of them, partly due to the fact that director Albert Schultz favours East-West blocking rather than North-South. Many lines are delivered to the wings rather than out into the audience” (Crew. I can’t even. And of course, when things work for him, it’s not the director’s doing either: “the second half is superb, as electric a piece of theatre as you are ever likely to see in this imperfect world. That’s because the Soulpepper veterans take charge.”); “Albert Schultz’s slow-burning production … Schultz’s direction emphasizes Proctor’s changing relationship with Elizabeth” (Morrow); “Fagan brings a thrilling warmth and soul to a character usually played with brittle bitterness. Credit director Albert Schultz with making the right call there” (Cole; I have no idea why we should credit the director with that — how do we know the choice wasn’t the actor’s?).
The contrast between what Gardner is describing as the state of theatre criticism and what we get in our reviews could not be starker. You may argue that that’s a good thing, that the relative absence of commentary on individual performances is a serious lack that Canadian critics have successfully resisted. But that means talking about theatre as if we were still in the 1950s. As if we hadn’t moved beyond the state of things Kenneth Tynan lamented in 1957, when he noted that “‘director’s theatre’; the very phrase, in English, has a pejorative ring.” As if it didn’t go without saying that a company such as Soulpepper is made up of excellent, even brilliant actors, who, more often than not, will deliver excellent, even brilliant performances. And as if there were nothing else to say about a particular production: what its goals may be, for instance. If they were achieved or not. What the production added to a reading of the play. What it did differently than other versions. What was new about it. Why it mattered. (Not why the play — still — matters: why this particular staging of it mattered. And how.)
Every single one of these reviews seems to assume that a successful production of a play consists of a good text and an ensemble of actors whose performances the critic judges to be convincing, or powerful, or subtle, or whatever. If the set doesn’t get in the way, good. If the costumes don’t interfere, lovely. If the sound and lighting design don’t distract, great. If the director just gets the actors to play their parts, makes sure they’re audible (!), and otherwise stays out of the way, splendid. Done.
I could go on at very great length about just how depressing a view of theatre and theatre direction this is. How incredibly limited. How unadventurous. How retrograde. And how much it has to do with a theatrical environment dominated by new plays (yeah, yeah, hobby horse warning in full effect). But I won’t. Let me just note that I feel and think all those things and move on.
Because even by those very modest standards, one might argue that The Crucible has a problem. Is it really a “good” play? A (positive) comment posted on the Globe and Mail website inadvertently points the way: “The message is chillingly clear and I ‘got it’ immediately.” Precisely. Miller hammers his message (something a play apparently is supposed to have) home with single-minded verve. It couldn’t be more clear. An audience can get it immediately.
What could possibly be good about that? For the record: I totally agree with that message. How could I not? I also agree with most critics in drawing parallels between McCarthyism and the “you’re with us or with the terrorists” attitude of the post-9/11 world. But that doesn’t make The Crucible a sophisticated or interesting play. Quite the opposite. Invert its political attitude, and we’d call such stark clarity propaganda. To rescue Miller’s play from its own moral certainty, a production has to blur the devastatingly clear line between good and evil. If we in the audience never wonder at all about who’s right and who’s wrong, all the play does is pat us on the back for being good people. Because if there’s one thing this play, or at least this production of it, makes practically impossible, it’s having the experience of not being one of the good people. Not only would you have to believe in witchcraft (ludicrous!); you’d have to believe a bunch of hormonally challenged teenage girls. Who would do such a thing? Only an idiot. Or a willful ideologue. And this show does not allow us even for a second to be seduced into thinking like an idiot or a willful ideologue. It leaves us in very, very comfortable safety on the other side, watching the idiots do their pernicious work, recoiling in horror at the willful ideologues’ murderous ruthlessness.
It’s not like the play doesn’t offer a director an excellent opportunity for complicating its own categories. This chance — or rather, this challenge — arrives in the famous scene in Act 3, when Deputy Governor Danforth questions Mary Warren, trying to figure out whether she’s lying or telling the truth (I refer you to any of the reviews above for plot summaries…). As the scene develops, the other girls turn on Mary, treat her as an agent of the devil, claim to see her familiar, a yellow bird, in the courtroom, and eventually act as if she had possessed them, echoing everything Mary’s says in a performance that has her more and more exasperated. Danforth at this point has a decision to make: does he believe Mary — in which case he has to regard the other girls’ actions as mere performance, and retroactively redefine all their seemingly supernatural symptoms as similarly faked; or does he buy into the girls’ performance, regard it as real, and consequently define Mary as a liar — worse, as allied with the devil? This should be a difficult decision. Danforth has already been confronted with a wealth of evidence supported by a long list of character witnesses, adult and respected members of the Salem community; he has heard multiple grown ups plead in entirely rational fashion; and he has had a key witness recant her prior testimony, incriminating herself in the process. He needs to weigh all this against a performance of bewitchment by a group of girls, girls now accused of perjury and conspiracy to murder.
From there, the scene can go two ways. Danforth ultimately sides with the girl and turns on Mary, that much is clear. But how does he get there? A production here has the chance to complicate things tremendously: the more frightening, the more deranged, the more truly possessed, otherworldly, eerie, or unsettling the girls’ performance, the more complex Danforth becomes as a character, and the less sharply defined the line between good and evil becomes. If we are at all frightened by these girls — if we are at all drawn in — if we are tempted to forget for a moment, as most of us are in the theatre, that we’re watching an actor doing her job and let ourselves believe that we’re really seeing the character, in this case a second-level character — if any of that happens, the ground starts to shift; and the more it happens, the more the safety of our place among the good people is compromised. And this doesn’t actually weaken the impact of the play: if anything, it increases it. Think about it. What’s more frightening: the notion that a bunch of vindictive girls can convince an entire community to put people on trial and execute them, or the experience of being drawn into the mass hysteria, even as we know, know for certain, that these girls are lying? A staging of The Crucible that forces the audience to doubt its own integrity, its own fortitude of conviction and moral righteousness actually achieves something. It doesn’t pat us on the back, it makes us question ourselves.
And then there’s the other way. Play the girls with force, but with a force that’s never more than theatrical. Approach the scene as frightening only because of the ease with which mass hysteria sweeps away clear and unquestionable evidence. Which is precisely what the Soulpepper production does. Its girls playact their parts. They actors can’t be faulted for being less than “truthful” — they’re very credible teenagers acting possessed. Never do their performances step out of line with the general psychological realism of everyone else’s acting. And the result is, frankly, a disaster. I can’t speak for others, but I was not for a moment frightened by these girls. When they start echoing Mary’s words, their actions were those of schoolyard bullies, not those of demoniacs no longer in charge of their own bodies. The reactions of the villagers to this spectacle seemed shockingly naive, ludicrously gullible, and thus eminently easy to judge: those were the idiots, the ignorant fools, taken in by a not especially compelling (because naturalistic) bit of playacting. Worse, it made Danforth look like either a boob or, worse, a vicious hypocrite grasping at any excuse to maintain the integrity of his court and its previous lethal judgments. Staged thus, the scene asks nothing at all of us. It may move us, but only in sympathy for those treated unjustly. It leaves the divide between good end evil entirely untroubled. And it makes for a play that may be morally upright, but also terribly, terribly simpleminded.
It would be very easy to blame the actors: they’re young (oh, so young!), we might say, and therefore likely don’t have the range to go beyond what they’re doing here. Claims about the limitations of actors not yet in their 30s are certainly sprinkled liberally through most of the reviews. I think that’s hogwash. The staging of this scene is entirely in keeping with the rest of the production, entirely in line with a consistent emphasis on psychological truthfulness. Often, this works. It keeps many of the performances from tilting into melodrama. But it has a crippling effect on this central scene. And that’s not an acting problem; that’s a problem with direction. It bespeaks a lack of flexibility, an unwillingness to push boundaries, a general well-mannered timidity, a reluctance to push a point of view.
Here’s what I don’t understand. Perhaps all these critics like the feeling of having their sound moral principles affirmed. It’s reassuring, I suppose. Perhaps they don’t want to think about dramaturgical questions. Perhaps they assume their readers don’t care or shouldn’t be made to consider what a director does — what it might mean to think or talk about the goals of a particular production. Perhaps the simplistic “performance is transmission of author’s text through actors’ work” scheme I described earlier really is all they’re willing to consider. Or perhaps I was completely alone in finding the girls altogether too natural, altogether too unpossessed; perhaps all these critics were scared witless in this scene, and consequently actually experienced a challenge to their own certainty. I doubt it, if only because I give them more credit than that — and because not one of them mentioned such a complication. Personally — and I seriously don’t think I’m alone in this — I much prefer art that shakes me, that forces me to ask questions, that troubles my certainties, that makes things I find detestable appear for a moment almost horrendously comprehensible. If I want my sound liberal principles affirmed, I watch MSNBC. But I don’t need to go to the theatre to be told that witch hunts are bad. And I’m saddened to see the talents of as brilliant an ensemble of actors as this wasted in pursuit of as easy and unchallenging a project as that.
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