Edinburgh International Festival, and its opening productions in particular, are uniquely linked: with the Festival’s branding universally visible, for instance, in their posters and programmes, the value of its productions reaches well beyond the events themselves, reflecting their parent Festival. Crudely put, it has to be good, from the outset. Scottish Ballet’s premiere production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Playhouse is the opening highlight of this year’s Festival, now celebrating its 50th year, and is very good indeed.
ArtMag attended the opening night – a warm Saturday evening with the city centre’s pavements heaving with countless crowds of Tattoo and Fringe visitors, adding to the local throngs.
Miller’s 1953 play dramatises grippingly the witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century, skilfully reminding audiences of the chilling and ever-present dangers of judgmental hysteria – not only in Miller’s time of the Senator McCarthy US political hearings, but extending back to the crucifixion, and forwards in time, resonating strongly in today’s social-media world, and enduring religious dogma and political repression.
In this brand-new narrative ballet, Choreographer Helen Pickett has not held back in depicting the full emotional force of the drama, with the personal damage wrought by adultery escalating rapidly into the spears of suspicion and accusation, and finally condemnation, breaking a God-fearing community in the process, and sending several to their deaths.
She and Artistic Collaborator James Bonas have worked carefully with the Ballet’s cast, making full use of the dancers’ bodily repertoire to set the sensuous and expressive personal dimension against the dark and foreboding weight of official damnation – the physicality is striking, at times the footwork in particular, seemingly expressing heightened agitation. Under the strain of his adultery with housekeeper Abigail, Elizabeth and John Proctor’s wounded relationship is expressed sensitively, and combines cleverly with the townswomen’s childish fascination with witchcraft, and its personification in Tituba, to conspire in igniting a bonfire of recrimination and resentment, growing into uncontrollable condemning hysteria.
A stark, suspended set of four square wall panels that angles to drop curtain-walls and denote changes of place, together with careful spot-lighting and costume in muted tones, (designed by Emma Kingsbury and David Finn) powerfully reinforce the sense you get of fragile, fearful people powerfully influenced, controlled even, by the spiralling force of their combined hostilities and resentments.
Played live by the Scottish Ballet Orchestra, Peter Salem’s unsettling, detailed and carefully-textured score underpins the dark narrative with a light-and-shade balance of bubbling, edgy percussion and zig-zagging strings, weighed-down with ominous bass legato – often rich and rhapsodic, but never murky or dense, and always descriptive.
Regrettably only running for three nights, the production is a powerful and fitting telling of an enduring text, and a sophisticated expression of the dynamic possibilities that dance theatre can explore and convey.
Grateful thanks to Liz Wallace and the EIF press team for their kind welcome and assistance.
[Link image: © Andy Ross]