‘In the Puritan New England town of Salem, Massachusetts, a group of girls are caught dancing in the forest. One of the girls falls into a coma-like state and the whole town fear that she has been bewitched. Following questioning by Reverend Hale, an expert in witchcraft, they confess to communing with the devil, and accuse various townsfolk of consorting with witchcraft. As time goes on, more and more members of the community are put on trial, and the hysteria continues to grow.’
The University of Birmingham’s drama society Article 19 took on the gargantuan task of performing Arthur Miller’s classic play. Yet, the pressure of performing such a masterpiece of literature seemed minuscule to the masterly cast, with the production appearing almost effortless. The cast as a collective were all extremely talented. It being my first viewing of a student run production, I was quite frankly blown away by the sheer gift the actors and actresses in this production possessed. Special commendations must go, however, to Sophie MacDonald (Abigail Williams), Jess Boot (Elizabeth Proctor) and Jonathan Stone (Giles Corey).
For those unfamiliar, Abigail Williams was once a servant for the Proctor household, yet was fired by Elizabeth after she discovered Abigail was having an affair with her husband, John (the protagonist of the play). MacDonald traversed the multi-faceted layers of the character with particular skill. Whilst I felt some chemistry may have been lacking with Jason Timmington as John Proctor, this was something of very little complaint, as MacDonald owned the stage with her interpretation of Williams’ vindictive nature and easily manipulation of Salem’s residents. Timmington too gave a commendable performance of a very difficult role.
Boot epitomised the virtuous nature of Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, utilising extremely nuanced acting skills to characterise the accused wife, retaining an air of sanctity that contrasted well with the hysteria of the townsfolk. Finally comes Stone as farmer Giles Corey, whose wife is, too, accused of witchcraft. Stone added a humour to Corey’s character, showing a true flair for comic timing, whilst at the same time portraying a more emotional side to Corey in the realisation of his wife’s indictment. Whilst some may think humour would be out of place in a play dealing with such dark themes, I felt this initiative added much to the performance (be it a directorial decision or Stone’s own inventiveness).
Also noteworthy was the costuming, designed Phoebe Ruttle. Apparently sewn out of bedsheets, the costumes were exceedingly well done for a student performance that must have possessed a rather low budget. They very much added to the suspension of disbelief that a room in the Guild of Students could be 1600s Massachusetts.
Miller’s play was written in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism, in which the US government under Senator Joseph McCarthy ostracised people for supposed Communist beliefs, creating an anti-Communist fervour, and a ‘witch-hunt’ in imprisonment of those suspected of adhering to the philosophy. The liberal entertainment industry, in which Miller worked, was one of the chief targets of such ‘witch-hunts’, with those accused being the likes of Donald Trumbo and, indeed, Miller himself. Those who were pronounced, incorrectly or correctly, as Communists, and those who refused to impeach their colleagues, saw their livelihoods ruined due to blacklisting. Thus, the themes surrounding Miller’s play, of hysteria, demagoguism, and intolerance, are timeless, undoubtedly remaining pertinent in our modern day society.
This relevance is intelligently reflected in the staging of the performance. Being set in a very small space, the production was claustrophobic, and at times, rather oppressive, with actors being within touching distance of the first row audience. This encouraged members to draw parallels between Miller’s examination of faith and society and their own personal and social contexts, a move smartly devised by the crew. The sparsity of props and equipment only added to the projection of the underlying message of the work – it was all about the text.
In conclusion, this was a perceptive and very well executed performance by Article 19. As someone who went into the show with no preconceptions of student led drama, this piece absolutely exceeded my expectations of what University of Birmingham students are capable of. I will certainly be visiting more Guild productions in the future, and I highly encourage others to do so as well.