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Paper Lantern illuminates a dark world of fear and suspicion by staging a classic play

PUBLISHED: 17:42 19 October 2017 | UPDATED: 17:42 19 October 2017

Liam Gregory as John Proctor. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play of fear and jealous The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren Beattie

Liam Gregory as John Proctor. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play of fear and jealous The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren Beattie

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The Crucible, by playwright Arthur Miller, is one of the great masterworks on modern theatre. As David Henshall discovers, The Crucible is more than a historical drama it’s a perceptive examination of how communities function and how petty jealousies can tear them apart.

Kel Ashton as Abigail Williams, a dangerous girl to know. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren BeattieKel Ashton as Abigail Williams, a dangerous girl to know. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren Beattie

We find it hard to believe that there was a time when people were accused of witchcraft and, if found guilty, hanged or even burned at the stake. Nowhere was this more true than at Salem in the American Massachusetts Colony during 1692-93. One of those who died was Rebecca Towne, who was born in Great Yarmouth.

The Salem Witch Trials was a subject that fascinated playwright Arthur Miller and he was prompted to write a dramatized and partly fictionalized play about this extraordinary story because he also saw the work as an allegory for the “reds under the bed” panic that was sweeping the States in the early days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

In the way that witches, sorcery and the black arts put fear into the minds of the comparatively simple souls of 17th century Salem, 1950s America was unreasonably wrapped in worry about possible creeping communist influence into its institutions, especially the civil service, education and the entertainment business.

Led by the self-important and bigoted Senator Joseph McCarthy, hundreds of people were dragged before the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee and accused of subversion or even treason without proper regard for evidence.

Kel Ashton as Abigail Williams, a dangerous girl to know. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren BeattieKel Ashton as Abigail Williams, a dangerous girl to know. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren Beattie

Miller was one of those questioned and convicted of Contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others at meetings he had attended.

Historians have taken issue with some of the changes to the known facts of the witch trials that Miller made, but the play became a classic and a central work in the canon of American drama.

The action in The Crucible takes place 90 years after the Salem community arrived as settlers from Britain and the playwright drew on the rhythms and speech patterns of the King James Bible.

Following their sell-out successes with Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and The Graduate by Terry Johnson, Paper Lantern Theatre Company, are now staging The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Their version will use modern music and effects to emphasise how bigotry, personal vengeance and hysteria can tear a community apart.

The girls from Salem. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play of fear and jealousy The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren BeattieThe girls from Salem. Paper Lantern theatre company is staging a new production of Arthur Milller's classic play of fear and jealousy The Crucible at the Sir John Mills Theatre. Photo: Darren Beattie

Salem is an isolated, nervous place in constant conflict with the native Americans and it doesn’t take much to get people worked up - in this case by young girls dancing in the woods in some sort of silly pagan ritual. Abigail Williams is the apparent ringleader.

She once worked as a servant for John Proctor, a local farmer and his wife Elizabeth and had been sacked for having an affair with her employer. Abigail still has feelings for John but he says he is no longer interested.

This could be dangerous because Abigail is at the centre of the accusations of witchcraft and the names of the accused will soon be spilling out in a reign of terror, of lies, accusations, trials and hangings. Nobody is safe, even reading certain books can be seen as suspicious.

Liam Gregory, who played Stanley Kowalsky in Streetcar, is Proctor with Rosie Beattie (Mrs Robinson in the Graduate) as his wife Elizabeth. Kel Ashton, in her first role for Paper Lantern, plays the dangerous Abigail.

Sally Broatch, co-director of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, for Paper Lantern theatre company. Photo: Sarah Lucy BrownSally Broatch, co-director of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, for Paper Lantern theatre company. Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

Darren Beattie is the Reverend John Hale, who is brought in to investigate the claims of witchcraft, with Mike Cook as the Reverend Samuel Parris and Martin Leigh as Deputy Governor Danforth. Also appearing are Paul and Helen Mann, Issy Alway, Mike Henderson and Jack Shepherd.

Director Rosie Beattie says, “This is a powerful text, written as parable against McCarthyism and we were keen to explore it as so many links have been made to the current US political situation. Despite it being set in 1692, we aim to contemporise the play a bit, mainly in our style of scene transitions and the use of multi-media to enhance storyline and subtext.” And there is a modern soundtrack that may surprise people.

The Crucible is at Sir John Mills Theatre October 25 to November 4. Tickets: 01473 211498 and www.easternangles,co.uk. It will transfer to Colchester’s Headgate Theatre in February 2018.

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