Arthur Miller’s play, based around witch trials in 17th century America, has resonance today, as the director of a new version tells EDWIN GILSON

EVERY second play or film seems to possess “modern relevance” – at least according to the directors behind the productions. Some of these claims are convincing while others resemble a mere ploy to attract a contemporary audience. It would be an understatement to say that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which premiered in 1953, belongs to the first category.

Judging by its continued presence on school curriculums and the number of touring productions staging the play, it resonates today as strongly as it did in the 1950s. This is partly because its central themes of hysteria and suspicion never really die – they are always somehow ingrained in the fabric of society, not to mention politics. It’s also just a terrific play, a parable in which the heat and tension build to almost suffocating levels.

Rarely has there been a production with a more fitting title (in all senses of the word crucible). Douglas Rintoul, artistic director of the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, which is staging the play in conjunction with Selladoor Productions, laughs that children usually hate studying so-called classic plays, with a few exceptions.

“I think The Crucible, along with maybe John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, is a text that students actually love to learn. Young people are still attracted to it. We’ve even had school reunions come to see our play, which proves it has a big impact on children. It’s an emotional rollercoaster – it moves us so profoundly.”

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to the “red scare” of the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy led a team determined to stamp out any perceived communist threat in America at the start of the Cold War with Russia. Artists were among the chief targets in the witch hunt, their liberal values supposedly making them impressionable to external influences. Some who were questioned co-operated with the authorities; some, like Miller, didn’t.

Critics and cast alike to were quick to observe the social critique of The Crucible, and some theatre historians believe this was a reason for its short run; it didn’t go down too well in the anti-communist climate of the time. The playwright used the Salem witch trials of the 17th century as a symbolic setting for his focus on the ‘red scare’. Between 1962 and 1963, 20 people were executed in colonial Massachusetts for supposed witchcraft.

It doesn’t take a massive leap of the imagination to see how Miller joined the dots between that era and McCarthy’s wave of persecution. “People hadn’t read those court records for hundreds of years,” says Rintoul, referring to the legal documents of the court case which plays a central role in the The Crucible. It was eating away at him for about 10 or 12 years. Because of what was happening in the 50s it struck a chord with him. A piece of art brought that episode into the consciousness of the national identity.”

In The Crucible, a group of young girls are discovered dancing in the woods with the black slave Tituba, apparently attempting to conjure spirits. The God-fearing people of a small New England town are whipped into a frenzy, suspecting that the dark arts are at work. The plot is thickened, and morals muddied, when Tibuta confesses to communicating with the devil. One of the girls, Abigail, joins her, with the pair also accusing other townsfolk of conspiring with Satan.

As the blurb for Rintoul’s play reads: “the town is quickly caught up in an unstoppable flow of paranoia, indictment and manipulation as personal grievances collide with lust and superstition creating a crucible of suspicion where no person is safe from his neighbour. Nobody knows who is guilty or innocent, an ambiguity which Rintoul is keen to discuss.

Puritan belief dictated that the devil was as real as God, and that the weakest individuals in society were selected to carry out Satan’s work. Others were considered God’s chosen ones. “What Miller does brilliantly is explore what it means to be neither black nor white,” says the director. “Human beings can be many things simultaneously. In the Crucible nobody is good – they all have flaws. They’ve all failed, they’ve all lied. Human experience is too complicated and rich to exist within the polarity of good and evil.”

Rintoul cites the rhetoric of certain politicians as an example of The Crucible’s continued relevance. “We’re really brilliant at the moment at scapegoating, particularly in terms of blaming immigrants for our problems.

“We put success at the centre of what we do in our society, and we don’t critique the capitalist system and the pressures it puts us under – we just blame others. We blame immigrants for how hard our lives are.” Rintoul points to the character of Ann Putnam, who loses seven children in childbirth, as an example of the inability to accept personal suffering. “She needs to find someone else to blame for that. In a society that puts family at the centre, that character can’t look at herself – she has to look outside.”

Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban is perhaps the clearest example of Rintoul’s overall point; attacking outsiders to distract from America’s own failings and the disorientating changes in the nature of industry and the workforce. Yet the director only started thinking about staging The Crucible 18 months ago, long before Trump was in power. “We had no understanding of how pertinent it would become,” says Rintoul. “But the play isn’t political with a capital ‘P’ – it does it very subtly.”

Moving away from political allegory into a more personal realm, Rintoul says that “we all recognise ourselves within the characters” of The Crucible. “it’s quite disturbing but it shows us what we’re capable of doing if the circumstances are right.” I wonder what he means, exactly. That we’re all susceptible to hysteria? The character of Abigail, and the lies she tells (about communing with the devil and accusing others of also doing so), offer an indication as to what Rintoul is getting at.

“It’s that teenage hysteria...we’ve all been there. We recognise being disempowered as a young person and the things we would do to gain some kind of power.” Clearly there is a difference between disobeying your parents’ curfew – to name a typical teenage act of rebellion – and accusing your fellow townsfolk of witchcraft, but you can see how Rintoul made the link.

But how does the director manage the pacing of the play? Isn’t there a risk that the production will be derailed if the plummet into all-out paranoia is too quick? “It’s like a musical score – you have to respect the rhythm of the production. The stakes are incredibly high. If you put too much space in it, it will definitely derail.”

Not that there is much chance of Rintoul’s production coming off the tracks at Theatre Royal Brighton. Miller’s play continues to engage and enthral audiences through the generations. Step into The Crucible – if you can stand the heat.

Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, April 24 to 29