“The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone,” Reverend John Hale trembles early on in the first act of The Crucible. And last night, as the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production of Arthur Miller’s previously unwreckable masterpiece fell with a damp thwack onto the stage of the Southbank Theatre, the marks of his presence were practically bleeding from the walls.

In just under three hours, I saw Paul English with the devil, I saw Grant Cartwright with the devil and I saw Greg Stone with the devil. I saw Heather Bolton with the devil, I saw Elizabeth Nabben with the devil, and I saw Brian Lipson lumbering around the stage with the devil so enthusiastically that they looked like two halves of the same pantomime horse. I saw director Sam Strong stirring a cauldron that he’d filled not with beans, lentils and some stray frog like Tituba’s, but with shit.

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The Crucible is written in a dialect — it’s right there on the page; yet Strong has the cast use their natural accents. When Naomi Rukavina as the slave Tituba delivers her lines — written in the syntax and accent of the character’s native Barbados — with rounded Melbourne vowel sounds, the last vestiges of hope leave the theatre.

In Miller’s unimpeachable text, the town of Salem, Massachusetts unravels as the young girls fling accusations of witchcraft first at one another, and then at anyone who dares vex them, until half the town is locked up and awaiting trial. In Strong’s version of the play, people shout. There is nothing about this production that works. Every single actor on the stage is playing in a different direction, something only made worse by the unrelenting ocker abuse of Miller’s once-dazzling words. Miller wrote The Crucible as a sort-of allegory for McCarthyism, but it never really plays like that. Here, Strong executes the theme with the all the subtlety of Animal Farm, and all the quiet elegance of a velociraptor.

The Crucible should be terrifying. There should be menace from curtain to curtain. This is a town full of people frightened that they’ll be the next to be accused of an invisible, impossible-to-disprove crime. The fear should be palpable, but it’s simply not there. The actors never seem to accept the premise of the play, so it’s nigh on impossible for the audience to.

One of the many surprising ways Strong attempts to kill the play is through blocking: nobody moves. The whole thing is staged so unimaginatively that all these characters do is stand still, arms by their sides, and talk at each other. You could be forgiven for thinking they all rehearsed separately, coming together for the first time only last night. And indeed, you could forgive them had this been the case.

The Crucible is not funny. With the arguable exception of one of John Proctor’s lines, it contains no jokes. Yet the audience last night laughed through all four acts. It’s not surprising given David Wenham, playing Proctor, is a joke. Wenham somehow looks and sounds like he’s never tread the boards before. All of his lines are delivered in the same up-down-up-down inflection, and the full extent of his physical participation in the action of the play is to occasionally put his hands on his hips like a Disney prince.

The audience didn’t buy his schtick for a moment, and spent the climax of the third act, a soliloquy for Proctor, in hysterics at the pompous nonsense Wenham offered up as he pranced around the stage. Wenham’s performance is pathetic, lazy and blank. And it’s matched note for note by his ill-fitting wig, which seemed to fall apart during the final scenes. It’s worth noting, too, that after being chained up for weeks against the wall of the prison during the fourth act, Wenham’s Proctor is still clean shaven.

As Reverend Parris, Greg Stone swings wildly between over-enunciating and mumbling, before finally settling on an odd mixture of the two. As Abigail Williams, the spurned young girl who started it all, Elizabeth Nabben screeches and seethes with a blank look on her face, not a hint of vulnerability or fear in her eyes, turning Abigail into a boring storybook villain; the one thing she’s definitely not. Grant Cartwright is lumbered with a comically awful wig as Reverend John Hale, and his performance would be fine in a production where even one of the other actors was attempting to strike the same tone as him, but in this collage of crap, his line readings are arch and silly. Brian Lipson, as deputy governor Danforth, chews scenery as though he hasn’t eaten since rehearsals began, and James Wardlaw plays Ezekiel Cheever as though he’s a character in a university revue, actively seeking laughs from the audience.

Every cloud has a silver lining. And every poo has a little bit of corn you could wash off and eat if you really needed to. Here, that kernel is Anita Hegh, who is the only good thing on a stage full of actors who — with the exception of Wenham — clearly know they’re dying. Hegh’s turn as Elizabeth Proctor is subtle, nuanced and graceful; she even manages to make the Australian accent work. But watching her play opposite dead-eyed deadpan Diver Dan, giving her all and getting nothing back, is heartbreaking.

Dale Ferguson’s deconstructed farmhouse set is great, but it doesn’t matter. His costumes for the women are stellar, too. His costumes for the men look like he raided the set of Blackadder and set about shredding things. Paul Jackson’s lighting is clever, but again it doesn’t matter. Kelly Ryall’s score might have done something to repair some of Strong’s damage, but it only happened during the act breaks.

On Broadway, a production like this would close in previews; here, thanks to the wonder of subsidised theatre, an audience in the tens of thousands will giggle their way through this 17th-century hell.

Strong has failed his cast and failed his audience. The only thing worse than sitting through all four excruciating acts of The Crucible is watching the cast’s faces during their curtain call. They know. Save yourself the heartbreak.

The details: The Crucible plays the Southbank Theatre until August 3. Tickets on the MTC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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