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OTG's spring 2009 production was The Crucible directed by Sue Baxter and performed at the Oxford Playhouse.
Reviews of the show appeared in the Oxford Times, Daily Information, What's On Stage and Theatreworld Internet Magazine.
picture from the performance The Devil is in them - and in the Circle, row B, seat 17 apparently.
Photo: Felicity Peacock
A gallery of pictures from the production is available to view.

OXFORD TIMES - Rosalind Miles

A heart-wrenchingly powerful performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is being given this week by the Oxford Theatre Guild. The play tells the true story of how young girls living in the puritanical society of America in 1692 are caught dancing in a forest and accused of witchcraft. Hysterical with fear, they accuse others of being devils in order to shift the blame away from themselves.

Cold, piteous officials take over, believe their allegations, then try to execute scores of innocent people suspected of being witches. We see this unfold through the eyes of John Proctor. His wife is accused of witchcraft out of pure spite; his attempts to save her are thwarted, and his life is shattered forever.

Alexander Rogers, who plays Proctor, has a strong stage presence and brings the character to life with both fervour and tenderness. His hard-hitting performance evokes Proctor’s raw anger and his intense torment.

He and Sophie Ruggiero, who plays his wife Elizabeth, effectively portray the tensions of their domestic life together and how their loyalty to each other pulls them apart and, ironically, away from the truth.

There are dynamic performances from many other members of the cast. The unbalanced tendencies of Abigail Williams, who starts wildly accusing other women of witchcraft, is shown brilliantly by Ailsa Joy. Andrew Whiffin is excellent as the unfeeling Deputy Governor Danforth, utterly unable to have any common sense or mercy, showing as he eloquently puts it “an ocean of tears will not melt statutes”.

The Oxford Theatre Guild, though an amateur company, has put on a very professional production. Dim lighting recreates the dingy conditions of the prison cells and during the execution scene darkness leaves the actual hanging to the audience’s imagination. Deep ‘voice of God’ style music is used occasionally for dramatic effect.

The play is widely thought of as being written by Miller as a parallel to the victimisation of the innocent by Senator Joe McCarthy during the Cold War. However, the story still has relevance today.

When talking about the witchcraft court one character says: “You are with us; if you are not with us you are against us.” Three hundred and more years later the last American President, George Bush, echoed almost those very words, in reference to the War on Terror.

Sadly, it is not difficult to draw a comparison between the undemocratic but unimpeded authority of the Salem court and that of the secret or military courts that governments of many countries use to imprison people. Of course, the now dismantled Guantanamo Bay comes to mind.

As well as being very moving, The Crucible certainly provides much food for thought.

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DAILY INFORMATION - Russell George

Let me start this review by saying that I didn’t read The Crucible at school, unlike half of Oxfordshire’s current adolescents who thronged in their multitudes to see the opening night of the Oxford Theatre Guild’s performance of Arthur Miller’s tale of witchcraft trials in 17th century Massachusetts. Helen, my astute accomplice for this mission, was also coming to the play for the first time; we must have been the only ones in the whole Playhouse. Everyone else was either experimenting with a new hairstyle and badly fitting jeans, or an English teacher. In some cases, both of the above.

But there’s a real joy in watching such a brilliant, important play without a defined cultural awareness that it is both brilliant and important. It’s like eating a Michelin star meal wearing a blindfold. The Crucible is a play that takes you on a dark journey of fear, vengeance and betrayal, but though it’s set in a society very different to our own, the parallels to modern day debates about terrorism are clear enough. There’s not much difference between the people accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692 and some of those who have been held on terrorism charges by the Bush administration at Guantanamo Bay. The play exposes that universal human frailty: trying to find answers for things we don’t understand, and deciding to blame others, anyone in fact, who conforms to our prejudices.

Yet director Sue Baxter maintains a very definite sense of time and place in this production. There are no clumsy attempt to update the play – the performers are all in period dress - or to refer to it as an allegory of post-war McCarthyism (the play was first performed in 1953, and Miller himself had been brought before McCarthy). But the story is strong enough that we don’t need metaphor or allegory. I was enthralled throughout. The unravelling of different lives within Salem, the petty jealousies and passions which underpin the accusations of witchcraft, are developed so subtly that the play just sweeps you along. The ultimate moral panic seems at once horrific and, within a society where dancing was as a sin and infant mortality an everyday occurrence, somehow understandable.

I also thought the performances by the whole cast were spot on. Alexander Rogers’, playing John Proctor, was excellent, particularly in the final scenes as he struggles with an uncertain conscience. Alice Evans’ Mary Warren was the right side of hysterical, and Andrew Whiffin as Deputy Governor Danforth was unnervingly reasonable in his prosecution of the innocent.

It’s perhaps inevitable that you’ll come away from The Crucible feeling shocked and saddened, but there is also a very real love story that runs throughout the play. John and Elisabeth Proctor’s shifting relationship is just as important. Amidst the gloom and despair of innocent people wrongly condemned, they remain beacons of strength and courage. The Crucible shows that it’s sometimes harder to do the right thing, and it might not make much of a difference, but it’s important to do it nevertheless. This is a fantastic play, and a great production – go see it.

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WHAT'S ON STAGE - Simon Tavener

On my way home from the theatre, I wondered how long it had been since I first read Miller’s classic play.  I was a little shocked to find that it is approaching a quarter of a century.  It is a play that is as relevant today as it was when it was first written at the height of the anti-Communist hysteria that gripped the USA in the 1950s.  It is almost a surprise that it is taken Oxford’s leading amateur company so long to mount their first production.

Having nearly sold out all of their performances, the Guild can rightly be said to have a hit on their hands.  The first night audience was packed with students all of whom have clearly got to sit exams on the text in the coming weeks.  On the whole their focus did not wander from what was happening on stage.

It can often be hard for a critic to approach amateur companies with the same rigour as one might with professionals.   Inevitably they will almost always come up short.  Unfortunately I have to report that, on occasion, this production did not quite come up to the normal Guild standards.

Of the leading characters, Joseph Kenneway made a positive impression as Hale - in many ways the moral centre of text.  He commanded the stage without exaggerated gesture or appearing to be acting.  Alice Evans was equally strong as Mary Warren - the girl who tried to speak out against the accusing children.  There was a directness and simplicity to her performance that was very telling.

The central couple of John and Elizabeth Proctor were less successful from my perspective.  Alexander Rogers is a capable and talented actor but I felt as if he was trying too hard.  You could sense the effort he was putting in to his performance rather than letting it flow naturally.  His voice rings loud and clear but without the sincerity that other cast members were demonstrating.  Sophie Ruggiero did not work for me as his much-put-upon wife.  Where the text demands an inner strength and steely determination, she seemed to have been directed to give us something much more passive and diminished.  Having said that, their final scene was as touching as Miller intended.

Probably my biggest niggle of the evening came from some of the staging decisions made by director Sue Baxter.  Far too much of the action was presented to us in profile.  Granted that the play is about a series of confrontations between two individuals, greater effort needed to be made to open out this so that the performances were able to be read by all members of the audience.  There were also a number of moments when key characters were masked by others.
There is no doubting that, for all my quibbles, this is a solid production of a key text.  Students of the play will see a straightforward and clear presentation of the work and will not be disappointed.

I shall certainly be keen to see how they tackle their next production - Henry V coming to Trinty College Gardens this July.

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Theatreworld Internet Magazine - Debby Taylor and Carol Shepherd

A simple Puritan Set of wood and other natural materials sets the scene for the supernatural and complex proceedings of the Salem Witch Hunts.

The Crucible has obvious parallels to Arthur Miller’s own life.  He was named in the ‘McCarthy Witch Hunts’ of the late 1940s / early 1950s as one of the ‘Reds Under the Bed’ and was constantly harassed by the FBI for the ‘Anti-American subtexts’ in his plays. This production though, concentrates on the historical events of 1692
 Silence in this production is used to spectacular effect, highlighting the restrictions of a Puritan upbringing, and helping to explain why the seemingly innocuous experimentations of a group of girls dancing in the woods (with or without the unproven nakedness and overtones of the occult), could manifest itself in mass hysteria and accusations of witchcraft for any unexplained events or unusual behaviour.  Attending Church only 26 times in 17 months, an example of such behaviour! As was ‘reading books furtively’.  Tituba (suitably dark and mysterious - Laura Smith) is the Barbados born slave whom, it is said, encouraged the girls to conjure up the Devil. 

Special mention has to be made for the lighting in this production which is brilliant.  When the characters are in the main, wearing black and white, it’s essential for creating atmosphere and is used dramatically as a foil for the ‘powers of the dark’ gathering over the village.

A solid performance from Alexander Rogers as John Proctor, basically a decent man drawn into a moment of lecherous madness by Abigail Williams, convincingly, and connivingly played by Ailsa Joy, results in mayhem, as Abigail points her finger at more than 100 ‘witches’ in her plan to take Mrs Proctor’s place. 

In a bid to save several people due to be hanged John throws away his good name and confesses his adultery with Abigail in order to expose her evidence’ as flawed.  John’s question of ‘Is the Accuser always Holy?’ hangs heavy as Abigail’s red petticoat peaks from beneath her puritan costume.  But John needs his wife to confirm the fact and in the first lie of her entire life, Elizabeth chooses to save John’s good name.  As a result, both John and she are condemned. 

On the morning of his planned execution John is given the chance by The Reverend Hale (Joseph Kenneway) to confess to witchcraft and therefore damn his soul for the lie or maintain his innocence and be hanged.  He asks if God damns a liar less than one who throws away his life for pride? His answer seals his fate.

Honest comic performance from (Gordon McGregor) as Giles Corey whose eventual fate is to be pressed to death.  Many other splendid performances by the very able cast make this powerful drama with palpable tension.  You’ll be clenching your fists and jaws at the unfairness of the system. 

And finally … To Francis Nurse (our very own Don Fathers) I would just like to say, your perfectly formed part was not as small as you would have had us believe and you played it brilliantly!  Thoroughly Enjoyable.

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