Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 2 June, 2010

Metaphor is a marvellous gift. When Oliver Ford Davies’ unassailably righteous Deputy Governor Danforth declares, “Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun [of truth] is up,” we none of us think, actually, the light has been thickening throughout the previous acts and it’s now almost full night. Well, none of us admits to thinking it. For it is after the interval that Timothy Sheader’s production attains full power.

Earlier, Arthur Miller’s classic parable seems perhaps too odd a choice for this al fresco theatrical bower in the middle of Regent’s Park. It is not just that the play is at odds with the notions of summery divertissement one associates with the venue; in addition, performances have to be more strongly delineated to fill the open-air space, more so than for an indoor venue of comparable capacity. An air of demonstrativeness hangs over the proceedings, almost of ritual. Sheader utilises this by having the main action witnessed from the lawn on either side by a chorus of the young women who are subsequently to become the accusers in the Salem witch trials. (When they enter ceremonially after the interval, one may also notice that there are now exactly thirteen of them, just right for a sabbat.) Jon Bausor’s stage looks like the gable end of a farmhouse laid almost flat, either waiting to be erected in a community spirit plainly lacking or already collapsed as will the spirit of the village. But the drama itself does not quite bite.

Then, the compelling courtroom phase of the drama combines with nightfall to focus our attention solely on the area before us (and also seems to muffle noises of sirens, helicopters etc). Now, too, Patrick O’Kane comes into his own as John Proctor, the flawed and reluctant embodiment of honesty amid the communal hysteria. O’Kane is a tremendously powerful actor, but sometimes his power seems to coruscate rather than penetrate; the later acts of the play allow him to go deep, especially when head to head with Ford Davies. Sheader clearly wants to get away from the venue’s reputation for safe and easy entertainment; appropriately enough, the summer’s big musical production, in August, is to be Sondheim’s Into The Woods. The season’s opening suggests that he may well succeed in blending enjoyment with other modes of stimulation for Regent’s Park theatregoers.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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