Following the Digital Theatre screening of The Crucible, we had the opportunity to interview multi-award-winning director and playwright Yaël Farber about the making of the play which opened at the Old Vic with rave reviews.
Miller’s The Crucible is relevant now as it was in the 50s and truly in every period of time when it was staged – what makes it so relevant?
YF: It is the mark of true genius that a work transcends time and is not beholden to the specificity of context that renders it accessible. The Crucible – like the Greek Tragedies – is a prism though which we learn about ourselves when witnessing the story unfold – and that story is complex. It does however, no matter which dictatorship or dominant ideology we find ourselves oppressed by, always come home to the same searing questions: who are we when faced with sacrificing others in order to disavow ourself? How much are we prepared to risk in order to resist an oppressive force that requires at least our complacency and at most our participation? And how deeply aligned are we with our idea of integrity – when the powers that be, demand that we compromise ourselves?
In an interview you said that you first read the play when you were 13 – Did those initial reactions from your first encounter with the play influence your approach to the play now?
YF: I was a South African teenager living in the white enclaves of a society dedicated to maintaining fear and suspicion as a currency in order to keep us in a dehumanized state. Civil disobedience is at the heart of The Crucible – just as its at the heart of Antigone. My reaction as a preteen reading The Crucible was to see the people around me in those pages. This was the defining guide for me when directing the work. It always is. It’s about recognizing what we witness on stage as ourselves in another context – forced to face ourselves and the decisions that the context requires of us. Theatre is mostly an imagined journey into the question: what would I do in that person’s position?
Many of your productions have used real testimonies from real people – with The Crucible, were you tempted to look at the original records of the Salem witch trials or did you work solely with Miller’s text?
YF: I have long had a fascination with this chapter of history and have in the past read trial records. This time I used these more to unlock language rhythms and to feel the societal textures of this remarkable community that we will never fully know.
Despite the context in which the play is set there is a personal story at its centre: that of John Proctor; his journey of self-discovery leads up to the question “What is John Proctor?” – What/who is John Proctor to you?
YF: He is our protagonist. The person we relate to who travels a particular narrative trajectory, sweeping us along his path until we ask who we ourselves would be if faced with his dilemmas. He is all that a protagonist needs to be: well intentioned, flawed (meaning human), doing his best, deeply conflicted and at odds with his own history. But he is a man worth our time and investment because ultimately he does not turn away from but towards all that the situation demands of him. Watching him come to terms with how much will be asked of him, and his decisions to meet these demands – is what creates a vicarious soul search for us as we witness this struggle of the soul.
The character of Abigail is a most interesting one; it’s easy to stigmatise her as the vengeful young woman, but really she is the product of the society she was born into and, instead of shamefully eclipsing from Proctor’s life she fights back – what were your thoughts when approaching this character from a director’s perspective and also from a personal one?
YF: Abigail takes agency. Unlike the girls or women of her time, she will not simply absorb what has happened to her, swallow the hypocrisy and fall into marginalized silence. She needs to be approached with respect and compassion in the creative process. She is a young girl feverishly in love. She has been used and will not go quietly. Initially she wants John before she ever wants revenge. She wants legitimacy when she has only ever been an orphan – but we cannot look away from the pathology of allowing and instigating innocent people to die to satiate her need for these things. She is a perfect representation of the society she comes from: A survivor; A fighter; A manifestation of all their unspoken resentments and malice… And again – a 17 year old girl who has been intimate sexually with a man for the first time in her life and believes he loves her and that she must solve the situation. She is any of us – if pushed far enough, and without guidance.
Every director has a different approach towards rehearsals; it is a very intimate moment for actors and directors to really dive into the characters. And obviously there are lots of ideas clashing – what is your process like?
YF: Intense, demanding, searching. Let’s just say we don’t sit at a table for a week analyzing with cups of tea and then stand up and move about on a designated playing area. I try to create a room safe enough to be dangerous; for actor’s to take real risks and discover. We weave the world we must represent and inhabit in a myriad ways that evolve uniquely to each rehearsal process. Actors who enjoy a traditional way of working and need to feel that the process and environment are predictable – will not enjoy the process of discovery that I and the company become dedicated to. Those who are up for that adventure are the artists I can make discoveries with. I am collaborative but do not believe that artistic creation is a democracy. I have very clear ideas of how a narrative must be enriched by each person in the room, while not being affected by everyone’s agenda. The actor’s job is to think egocentrically about the story from their character’s point of view. It is my job to firmly keep each beat of the narrative accountable to the larger sweep and accurately moving forward, focussed where it needs to be going. Personally I would not want to be on a Trans Atlantic flight during which the pilot takes everyone’s suggestions on how to get me home. I want the pilot to land that plane. Creativity requires that the passengers onboard are not passive. It is a magnificently interdependent exercise – but ultimately it is the director who must engage in what Ann Bogart calls: “the violence of decisions”. The work of the playwright is the map. I gate keep its intentions – even from my own wandering agendas. I ask the actors to reach deep and propose – and I stay lucid. We cast the net wide, we gather towards ourselves what to keep and then home and deepen what remains.
In the past you have worked on both adaptations of old time classics and original works – what are the stories that inspire you?
YF: Consistently it is always the stories about the tenderness of being human, and the decisions we make within the conditions we are given, as we reveal and form and discover who we are.
In your opinion, what is the power of theatre compared to other media, for example cinema?
YF: Theatre is an ancient ritual that keeps surviving against all odds. It is – at its best – what going to a place of worship is supposed to do. It connects us back to our community (we sit together in the dark, experiencing a shared transcendence of sorts); it connects us to our private selves ( as we walk the line with the protagonist who is living and enacting the dilemmas metres from us) and we connect to our experience of the ephemeral unknowable gods / God/ Divinity (even if that be of the self). The experience needs to be larger or deeper or further than we can take ourselves alone. I don’t know another medium that offers something so tribal and complete. Of course when theatre is done badly – it cannot compete with even the most mediocre of cinema. It’s a medium that asks all. I go to the theatre wanting everything. I am rarely satiated by what I see. But when I am – there’s nothing like it.
I remember you once said that in theatre the audience doesn’t get to see the ‘sweat and tears on the actor’s face’, but with the filmed version of The Crucible you definitely do. Did you get involved with the filming of the play? What are your thoughts on filmed theatre?
YF: I was cautious in that I have rarely seen a filmed play that does not fall between two stools. Rob Delamere showed me on our first meeting (which began as a breakfast chat and ended 9 hours later) that he was “all in” on ensuring that my vision for the live experience was his and the team’s guide in this process. We discussed every angle of what I believed to be important to capture. The Old Vic flew me back to London for the filming process so that performances were guided and homed for a final push. (This was filmed in the last week of a 3 month, 8 shows a week run); that my dialogue with both the theatre team and the cinema team was ongoing and detailed. I was back in Montreal once editing began but we worked via technology. Rob miraculously weaved each act together from hours of footage and camera angles. He would send a rough cut to me and I would watch through the nights (the time zone difference was not kind) and then send pages of notes back for changes – each of which Rob honoured meticulously, or advised against when he felt it could not work. Using cinematic shots is a whole other rhythm and series of choices that profoundly affects the viewer’s experience. I was grateful to be deeply a part of all these choices in the editing process and believe we have achieved an accurate representation of the theatre experience – with the added intimacy of close up. Film feels like a dangerous new flirt making eyes at me from across the bar. It feels inevitable, and very natural to me. I have no doubt I will fall more in love with it whenever we meet again…
Encore screenings are taking place next week in UK cinemas. Visit www.thecrucibleonscreen.com to find your local participating cinema.