AS Drama and Theatre Studies students witnessed the first production of the Autumn Season performed on the main stage of the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester.

In a small, deeply religious town, Salem, Massachusetts 1692, Abigail Williams and other girls are caught dancing in the woods by the Reverend Samuel Parris and there is talk of witchcraft and the work of the devil. So deeply concerned are they that a minister from Beverley, (Reverend Hale), is called to root out the problem. The girls start speaking of those women in the town that they saw making pacts with the devil. The witch hunt begins as officials from Boston are called in to preside over ‘the crucible’. One by one innocent people are asked to confess to witchery and if they do not confess, they are hanged. John Proctor is one of many who fall victim to the trial, following a web of lies spun by Abigail Williams (with whom he has had an affair). With clear parallels being drawn to McCarthyism in America in the 1950s, Miller’s play tackles notions of Justice and how quickly lies can spread like wildfire, concealing the truth.

The production mainly used naturalistic performance skills to create believable characters within the play, although occasionally the characters ‘on trial’ would look to us, the audience, as their judge and jury. Composer Richard Hammarton used invasive, recorded music and sound to accompany the action; either complementing the atmosphere or clearly contrasting with it. Designer Max Jones created a stark and minimal set design, using selective realism through use of props to convey location. Perhaps more controversially, he used purposefully anachronistic costume choices for the male cast, from a range of periods through history, to navigate the audience’s thinking to the fact that this is not just a play about the past: it is about law, justice, religion and society through the ages, and even about society today.

Students had mixed views on the overall production, as there were some performances that lacked conviction and some design choices (flooding the stage with water) that whilst visually interesting, became very distracting from Miller’s rich dialogue. There was huge appreciation and celebration of Jonjo O’Neill in the role of John Proctor, delivering a powerful performance that deeply moved the audience.

All in all, this was an excellent way to start the year for the Drama and Theatre Studies students.