Dramatic and intense: Scottish Ballet’s The Crucible

Sadler’s Wells, London
June 14, 2022

Like the Arthur Miller play on which it is based, Helen Pickett’s full-length version of The Crucible for Scottish Ballet is set during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Miller’s classic is not so much a historical narrative as a commentary on early 1950s American politics seen through a 17th-century lens, specifically Senator Joseph McCarthy’s allegations of communist subversion in high places, people confessing imaginary sins and implicating friends and other. Watching the ballet, it’s not a huge leap to see contemporary relevance in the way accusations are so easily taken up and spread today, especially on social media, quickly they become fact; and how lying by accusers and accused, and protestations of innocence are so often brushed aside in the hysteria.

Pickett’s ballet captures well the overbearing emotions and tensions of the Massachusetts community. In that, she is helped enormously by composer Peter Salem (yes, that is his real name), lighting and set designer David Finn, and costume and set designer Emma Kingsbury. Whether at home, in the woods, the church or the courtroom, The Crucible is a ballet of shadows. One can imagine the whispers that go on in its corners. Dominating the scene is a huge tilting slab with a cross-shape cut out that seems to bear down heavily on everything beneath it.

Sophie Martin in The Crucible
Photo Andy Ross

Locations are defined simply by just a few chairs, tables and panels. The costumes are based on traditional dress of the time: the women in long dresses, pinafores and hats. Among the men, the black and white costumes of the citizenry suggest power and repression. Salem’s part recorded, part live score catches the underlying tensions and emotions of each scene perfectly.

The Crucible is a ballet with a lot to get your teeth into. The dramaturgy is excellent. If the success of a ballet is judged by how easy it is to follow without reading the synopsis, it is a winner.

It’s a dramatic ballet full of intensity. A running thread is the relationship between John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth (Nicholas Shoesmith and Sophie Martin) and the former’s affair with their servant Abigail (Constance Devernay). Unlike in the play, we witness one of their passionate encounters in a pas de deux of deep animalistic intensity. It’s a powerful representation of the pent-up feelings and forces the repressive society must have fostered in some. It also gives the ballet a very human, individual element that the audience can hold on to as they watch the society of which the couple are a part turn on itself.

Constance Devernay as Abigail in Helen Pickett’s The Crucible
Photo Jane Hobson

It is in such close-up moments that Pickett’s choreography is at its best. After the affair has been discovered by Elizabeth, a pas de deux for her and her husband elucidates beautifully her mixed up feelings. She’s angry and upset, hurt, but clearly still loves him. Her forgiveness is there for all to see. It is her expelling of Abigail from the household, and the servant’s desire for revenge, that sets off an unstoppable train of events. Martin and the rugged Shoesmith are both utterly believable as the couple navigating their complex situation and awkward relationship.

As the story unfolds, Pickett shows well how hysteria can take hold. There is a power in the ensemble scenes where her choreography is very stylised, full of angular, jittery movement and representations of the cross made with arms as everyone dances in step. While it provides a contrast to the naturalistic pas de deux and the wild movement of the girls in the forest, it does get extremely repetitive, however. Far better are the moments when it all descends into unrestrained frenzy and finger-pointing.

The focus on the relationships between the lead characters does reduce the impact of the courtroom scenes but the final heart-wrenching, farewell dance for John and Elizabeth is definitely worth waiting for.