Review – The Crucible – Scottish Ballet ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Edinburgh International Festival

The Crucible – Scottish Ballet [world première]

Edinburgh Playhouse

19:30 (run ends 5 August)

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5 stars)

A crucible: a container which can withstand extreme temperatures in which things can be melted at high temperatures; a severe trial.

In 1692, the extreme Puritan community of Salem was put to the test when two young girls suffered fits, and people began to believe the devil was in their midst. In the ensuing hysteria neighbours made accusations against each other and the community collapsed into chaos: fourteen women, five men, and two dogs were executed for witchcraft. Arthur Miller’s play, on which this ballet is based, pointed the finger at the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era, when people would denounce friends and colleagues in order to save their own skins

Choreographer Helen Pickett has produced a must-see portrait of a society falling apart, and the rigid rules of religion and behaviour masking hypocrisy, jealousy and the desire for revenge leading to manipulation and hysteria. Abigail, maidservant to John and Elisabeth Proctor, is jealous of her mistress: she seduces her master but is thrown out of the house when Elisabeth finds out. Abigail tries to inveigle John into further assignations but he rejects her – is this the fundamental cause of all the hysterical behaviour of the young girls, cleverly orchestrated by the vengeful Abigail?

Peter Salem’s superb original score is deeply emotional, with a wide range of styles, textures and colours: seductively sinuous when Abigail tempts John, lushly lyrical when John and Elisabeth express their love for each other; rigid and repetitive when the ministers lead the services in the Meeting House; feverishly frenetic when the girls follow Tituba, the slave girl, into the woods and work themselves into a frenzy in which they rip off their clothes and dance naked; building intensity and feeling of impending doom during the trial scenes; screaming with the girls when they accuse many of the community of witchcraft, thus condemning them to death; and building to an extreme intensity when John has to decide whether to save his own life or go to his death alongside Elisabeth his wife.

David Finn’s lighting intensified the mounting terror – the stark spotlights of the court scenes, the increasing use of shadows, initially good humouredly as Abigail imagines her future life and the girls tell a story with shadow play – but the shadows slowly intensify and threaten to engulf the whole community. Emma Kingsbury and David Finn’s simple set with its effective transformations intensified the claustrophobic atmosphere within the community.

The dancing was, of course, superb. Constance Devernay made a most beguiling Abigail, with Araminta Wraith and Nicholas Shoesmith a deeply loving Elisabeth and an acutely conflicted John. Cira Robinson, Senior Guest Artist from Ballet Black, danced the part of the slave girl Tituba which was created for her: she grew up in America with coloured role models, knowing it was possible to be a prima ballerina – it was only when she came to the UK that she became aware of the colour of her skin… The rest of the cast displayed the excellence I have come to expect from Scottish Ballet.

The narrative proceeded apace: would it have been easier to follow if I’d been more au fait with ballet gestures? Much of the action made sense, but at times things were somewhat confused, and in the final scenes there were many pieces of paper being

waved about whose contents weren’t always clear. There was a strong contrast between the stylised, mechanised behaviour of the ministers and congregation and the flowing lyrical lines of husband and wife, the stark and angular contrast when she initially rejected him and then melted at his sorrowful pleading for forgiveness. There was no humanity and little love, except between John and Elisabeth as a supposedly devout and friendly community was torn apart by the jealous machinations of a little blonde brat…

At the final curtain there was loud and prolonged applause for the cast, the creative team, and conductor Jean-Claude Picard and the superb orchestra of Scottish Ballet, of whom I have to single out the cellists – Mark Bailey, Susan Dance, and Elias Rooney, who made such an outstanding contribution to many of the most tender moments in the magnificent score.

This is an outstanding ballet – don’t miss it! If you can’t manage this weekend, catch it when it tours to Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness in the autumn and Washington, DC, next year.

Mary Woodward