The impressive new Performing Arts Centre held its first production this week and all the signs are that this will be an exciting and fitting home for Drama at RGS long into the future. The intimate atmosphere of the Godfrey Brown Theatre remains, but this new space certainly provides an enhanced theatrical experience for the audience and actors alike.
To usher in this new era, the RGS DIY Company gave an expectant and eager audience Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. The play is a demanding and complex piece and the cast did justice to its subtlety and disturbing power. The plot is based upon the Salem Witch trials of the 1690s but Miller used this narrative to comment upon the hysteria and persecution he saw in the Cold War America of his own time, a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy was ruthlessly pursuing anyone he considered ‘un-American’. Ostensibly, the victims of his investigations and ‘show trials’ were meant to be dangerous communist adversaries; in reality, this became anyone McCarthy felt did not quite conform to his idea of a good American citizen. Miller himself was to fall foul to McCarthy’s witch-hunt.
The dramatic world of the play is alien and strange; the Puritan community it depicts veers between devout piety, religious mania and ruthless, malicious persecution. This young DIY cast faced a great challenge in entering the psychological and religious dimensions Miller explores but they did so with emotional maturity and dramatic sensitivity. The results were often compelling, especially in a taut second-half which had pace and a sense of growing febrile intensity and darkening frenzy. Alex Edwards, Upper Sixth, was powerful as John Proctor: he captured Proctor’s uncompromising torment and was convincing as a figure who martyrs himself to truth. To see Alex take on such a role as this so successfully in his last RGS production, was a fitting adieu from someone who has been a stalwart of RGS Drama for many years. Bravo Alex and thank you. The scenes between Proctor and his wife Elizabeth (played by Frances Broadbent, Lower Sixth) were full of pathos. Darcey Chambers, Year Eleven, was particularly impressive as Mary Warren, a role she played with great intensity and commitment. Mia Shaw, Lower Sixth, tackled the role of Abigail Williams with a similarly effective sense of emotional torment. The cast was strong throughout and handled Miller’s tricky dialogue well. This aspect of the play demands sure-footed judgement, given the way Miller employs archaic diction and phrasing. Again, the challenge was well-met. Particular mention should be made of Tazmin Barnes, Lower Sixth, in the role of Miller himself, and also Martyn Forrester, Upper Sixth, who stood in as Reverend Parris at less than a week’s notice, due to illness in the cast. The clever device of having him pore over his Bible as if searching for truth and guidance in its pages, was remarkably effective, and it enabled him to command the role very effectively, despite such limited rehearsal time.
Several aspects of the staging were striking. The plain, black back-drop emphasised the play’s austere Puritan world but also suggested the darkness which gradually engulfs this broken community. The tableaux and physical scenes, with the recurring motif of warning fingers, held to hushed lips, leant the performance cohesion and rhythm. Particularly arresting was the decision to stage the opening of the trial in the theatre foyer as the audience headed back to their seats after the interval. This was just the sort of innovative and immersive device this new theatrical space can offer and it was very, very effective. It gave the second-half a momentum that never faltered.
One of the great distinctive strengths of the DIY Company is, simply, that they do a huge amount of the work themselves. All of the lighting, sound and other technical support is provided by a crew comprised of pupils, many of whom are gaining their first experience of what is involved in a production of this kind. They also take care of the costumes, make-up, publicity, ticketing, and all the other necessary, but often unheralded components, of a successful performance. Another virtue of the DIY concept is that it allows pupils to tackle plays like ‘The Crucible’. In many ways it is not an appealing play: its exploration of ambiguous morality, treachery, selfishness and suspicion confronts us with human failings we might want to evade. And yet this moral and dramatic seriousness really stretches young performers; it exposes them and extends their sense of their own dramatic capabilities. In its new home, RGS Drama has again wonderfully exhibited the range, depth and variety of theatrical talent the School possesses.
Mr N Phillips, Head of English