It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two Ivo van Hoves. One of them directs brilliantly precise artistic revivals (like A View From The Bridge) which serve the play by using the concept to make it timeless, immediate and gripping; the other directs muddled self-servingly “artistic” revivals (like The Crucible) which undercut the play by substituting concept for connection and making it “contemporary,” shallow and confusing.
This production is set in a classroom which (based on the schoolgirl uniforms) could be anytime between the 30’s and the 60’s, but probably represents either 1952, when the play was written, or 1953, when it was first produced. It works for the prologue that van Hove has created: all the girls of Salem in class, reciting what’s written on the blackboard about good and accepted behavior. But because it’s a common space, it feels all wrong for a young girl and an older man to be talking about their affair. And because it’s supposed to also double as John Proctor’s home, you never feel the sense of intrusion when someone from the town comes to question him, or the sense of dread when he talks about going to town to defend himself. It’s like watching a play about Robespierre’s life where all the scenes take place next to the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde. (Actually, that sounds like a pretty cool play; but this van Hove would fuck it up.)
There is Philip Glass underscoring throughout the entire production. It is incredibly distracting and annoying.
In a lot of ways, this production is like Bad Van Hove's Antigone at BAM. (One does not talk about his Antigone at BAM. It's like The War. But one must admit that it takes a certain kind of genius to make Juliette Binoche look bad.) The main similarity between the two: the acting level is not that high. Ben Whishaw is the best thing in this, by far. Sophie Okonedo does her best, but I didn’t feel like she was playing Proctor’s wife, only his conscience. Ciarán Hinds has been better; he’s brusque and officious in all the right ways, he plays the “Are you accusing me of wrongdoing?” card like a professional political gambler, but I only got the all-business side of Danforth from him, not the moral certainty side. Plus he was drowned out now and then by the incredibly distracting Philip Glass underscoring.
Which reminds me: the Philip Glass underscoring is incredibly distracting and annoying.
What are we to make of this, Part 1: The curtain lowers; then immediately rises, and we see Betty Parris, the mute still-in-shock girl from the opening scene, flying in the middle of the classroom. The vision lasts just long enough for the audience to note it, and then the curtain comes down. WTF?
Saoirse Ronan is a sad disappointment. When she speaks, she “projects” like someone who has never been on a stage before, and it’s all one note, and it’s a surface note to boot, which means there’s nothing in it that comes from inside her. I’ve said this before about other film actors when they do stage plays, and it holds true for Ronan: it’s like she’s laying down a vocal track which she can fine-tune in post-production. Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren fares better—she has stage chops; she has a three-note range—but she still does the “projecting” thing with her voice, which makes her sound like she’s always protesting against something. But since that fits her torn-between-two-choices character, it works.
What are we to make of this, Part 2. At the opening of Act 3 (right after intermission,) the curtain rises on a man asleep in the classroom. Enter a wolf audience right, who prowls across the stage (eating pre-set treats, if you’re sharp-eyed enough to notice), then stops at the lip of the stage, and turns and stares at the orchestra audience, before trotting off audience left. It’s a genuine Wow Moment. But it’s also a Huh? Because: what does it mean? And if it’s not there to mean something, why is it there?
That sound you hear is me gritting my teeth at the incredibly distracting Philip Glass music. (Oh wait—you can’t hear my teeth grinding at all, can you? Because that Philip Glass underscoring WILL NOT FUCKING STOP.)
What are we to make of this, Part 3. After Mary Warren says that Abigail is faking it, and Abigail accuses her of being Satan’s bitch, and Mary repents and rejoins the Salem Girls, there’s what can only be described as a poltergeist event on stage. The classroom neon lights flicker, short out, and fall from their moorings; and from the audience left wall, a stream of trash and refuse hoses out onto the stage. This happens for what feels like thirty seconds, so it was probably closer to 15 or 20; and again, it’s a Wow Moment. But when you’re doing a play in which one of the questions is “Are these girls in league with the devil?” and then you show an audience evidence that something devilish appears at their command, well shit, play’s over, right? It’s like Jack Nicholson walked onstage, grinned at the audience, and went: “He-e-e-e-e-ere’s SATAN!”
The unique thing about this production for me? It's the first time I've seen The Crucible where I've been convinced that the town of Salem has sacrificed all its male children to the Old Testament God. Because it's the first time I've ever seen the play and asked myself: "Wait a minute! Where are all the BOYS?" Which is not a question anybody should be asking during this play.
You know how weird this production is? There isn’t even a lights-out at the end. You just see Elizabeth Proctor deliver the final line, and then everybody troops onstage for the curtain call. And I'll tell ya, they don’t look very happy.
Me, I’m only happy that the OTHER van Hove directed View From The Bridge.