To walk into Elliot Hall and be declared a ‘witch’ was an unnerving experience for women in the audience at this year’s senior drama production. The whispering of lies and infectious gossip by cast members, standing amongst the audience before the start of the show, set the scene for Arthur Miller's re-telling of the 1692 Salem witch trials, exploring mass hysteria and exposing the justice system in a powerful tragedy of one man's search for self. Miller raises the universal questions of pride, guilt, reputation and faith creating a powerhouse of a play with a weighty message that still holds uneasy relevance today; a message that was admirably delivered by our student cast.
Opening in the Puritan New England town of Salem, Massachusetts, a group of young girls are caught dancing irreverently in the forest by the local minister, Reverend Parris (Alex Mullins). His daughter, Betty (Lucy Broadhead), is one of them and falls into a coma-like state.
Suspected of witchcraft, word spreads fast in this insular community and Parris's worried flock congregate outside his home demanding answers. A widower, he has little understanding of children and is already at odds with his congregation for his seemingly mercenary approach. He is confused by the situation and calls on Reverend John Hale (Peter Carberry), an occult specialist, to assess the situation. Sitting quietly in the corner observing is Parris’s niece, Abigail (Alice Finnegan), the spiteful ringleader of the girls who is drawn to confess to dancing in the woods. Rather than take her punishment, the manipulative girl spots an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the Proctor family for dismissing her from their employ after an affair with the master, John Proctor (Lloyd David). She deflects judgment of her own behavior with frenzied accusations of witchcraft among her neighbours and as Betty awakes she, too, follows suit screaming, 'I saw Elizabeth Proctor with the Devil!' which sets in motion the witch hunt that brought a New England Puritan community to its knees in 1692. Many innocent men and women were hanged and many more were wrongly accused of consorting with the devil.
There are many whose acting skills shine brightly in this show, but if there is one true star to be singled out, it is Lloyd David who perfectly captures the inner torment of John Proctor. He is to be applauded for the learning and delivery of his lengthy part. Although Abigail still carries a torch for the rugged farmer, he has pledged himself faithful to his wife, Elizabeth, and as the mayhem snowballs out of control when his wife is accused of witchcraft, he refuses to compromise his moral principles. Ashley Clarke plays John’s wife Elizabeth; a quiet, stoic source of strength that brings a voice of reason to troubled times. As they openly unravel their fractured relationship, the audience really does come to care about the outcome for these two characters; a testament to their strength of acting.
The Proctors have taken on Mary as their new servant girl, well played by Sharnika Leleni as she tackles the role of girl whose ethics are challenged when she knows the truth but feels threatened to speak out against Abigail.
As the action moves to the courthouse trial, we meet the sanctimonious Deputy Governor Danforth (Ben Elias) who has arrived to preside over the fallacious witch trials. He is determined that the law must be upheld, even at the risk of obscuring the truth. Tate Steel comes into his own as Giles Corey, who first appears as a hapless fool but it is his unexpected legal acumen that gets the better of the court. Mary is faced with a gruelling internal conflict but declares, ‘I cannot lie no more. I am with God, I am with God.’ Sensing danger Abigail, once again turns the tables and in one of the most spine-chilling scenes in the show, a frenzy of mock-witchcraft pours forth from the girls, mocking Mary in front of the judges and reverends. Leading this pack, Alice, as Abigail, acts with supreme passion as the hysteria mounts.
The final jail scene where the condemned wait is heart-wrenching as the full weight of the injustice of those falsely accused is laid bare. Although a small role, Olivia Osborne brought amazing gravitas to her last moments as the elderly, accused Rebecca Nurse. Lloyd and Ashley as John and Elizabeth complete their outstanding task to be brave in the face of hypocrisy, superstition and unjustice.
The show was staged with minimal props and sets, concentrating attention on the people and their words. The words were delivered with great assurance holding the audience in their power. Even those students who had no lines and were not the centre of the action retained their character throughout, bringing life to the courthouse scene in particular.
Bringing a show of this calibre, this early in the College year requires concentrated effort. Our thanks to Director and Producer, Ms Emma Bishop along with her support staff, Mr Ian Thomas as Stage Manager, Mr Terry Haffern as Backstage Manager, Mr Glen Mortensen as Sound and Lighting Manager, Ms Sarah Whinham as Costume Manager, Ms Maia Freeman as Hair and Makeup Manager and Mr Paul Venter for Front of House. This was a show of pure theatre.