Warnings resonate in troubled times

The Crucible, Sheffield Crucible until March 30.
RELEVANT: Anoushka Lucas in The CrucibleRELEVANT: Anoushka Lucas in The Crucible
RELEVANT: Anoushka Lucas in The Crucible

FORGED in the white-hot crucible of McCarthyism's fake "reds under the bed" witch hunt of the left in the 1950s, Arthur Miller's play resonates fiercely in today's world.

Miller set his exposure of the false allegations and lies during the Salem witch trials of 1692, because he could not have openly written about the infamous McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities of that time - with even the subject of Oscar-winning Oppenheimer caught up in it.

The unusual use of many microphones on stage echoes the sight of old black and white footage of many individuals from the great Hollywood era being forced to defend themselves in the McCarthy hearings. It is one of several modern touches - plastic chairs, a police evidence bag - which demonstrate the links between the centuries.

It's an unusual but effective device, allowing some voices at times more prominence than others and so that whispers can be heard, amplifying a climate of fear from Salem to Washington.

Characters additionally get to speak direct to the audience using the mics, as the lights go on and off in dramatic fashion, layering the definition of a crucible being the interaction of many different elements.

A narrator, Sid Sagar - later to appear as Reverend Hale - sets the scene in Miller's own words, outlining puritanical Salem, Massachusetts and its relationship with a changing country and native Americans.

Moving swiftly on, Reverend Samuel Parish is in fear of his job after seeing his daughter Betty and other girls dancing in the woods, believing it to be a pagan ritual or worse, witchcraft. A 50s shaped bottle of milk - or is it a potion? - gets drunk and smashed as Betty (a scarily believable Honor Kneafsey) collapses in a trance on a table. which seems to takes on magical qualities as things progress.

Stories change about what happened, blame shifts, the girls' accounts vary. Was it just a bit of sport or the devil's work? Salem is rife with rumour. Finally a series of trials take place to determine where the truth lies.

Sexism is at the centre of the piece, where 17th century Salem - like the Handmaid's Tale - saw women trapped in often loveless child-bearing, child-rearing roles or as servants for the better off, resonating with the Me Too movement of the last few years.

Abigail is a young girl, a sexual victim of John Proctor's abuse of his power over her. Women are groomed from childhood to undertake their position in society. Fear of being found out torments the Proctor family as paranoia grips the township and revenge is let loose on every action or word.

The set by Georgia Lowe, is sparse, with benches and chairs suggesting a courtroom or ampitheatre. A hanging box of the CRUCIBLE sign adds a neat touch.

Sound by Giles Thomas, from choirs to incantations, builds the tension. Lighting by Jess Bernberg, with portable lamps across the stage, provides a stark accompaniment.

Rose Shalloo brilliantly creates the two sides of the demonised Abigail Williams, a young woman full of life bursting out of Salem's straitjacket, yet tragically in love and seeking vengeance after being cruelly cast aside.

Simon Manyonda shines as Proctor, a weak, deceitful man, to blame for, yet denying, mistreating Abigail, who finally displays the ultimate courage in calling out the truth as more precious than his life.

Millicent Wong is outstanding as Mary Warren, relishing the role which brings horror and humour to what is happening all around.

A key figure is the vacillating, craven, career-minded Rev Parris, deftly played by Sargon Yelda, representing the church and all its contradictions.

Parris's slave Tituba, touchingly played by Giullianna Martinez, is an intriguing character, who may or not be of native American background, leading the girls in their midnight delights.

The rest of a superbly talented cast, Geoffrey Aymer as a powerful Giles Corey, Ian Drysdale as the fearsome witchfinder Danforth, Sagar compelling as a redemptive Rev Hale, Laura Pyper impressive as Sarah Good/ Ann Putnam, Mark Weinman effective as a bitter Thomas Puttnam, Joseph Langdon a suitably authorative Ezekiel Cheever, Alexandra Mathie and Andrew Macbean, striking as Rebecca and Francis Nurse, all gave tremendous support.

As Trump seems to be heading for the White House again, Anthony Lau's production is timely and chilling - a fresh reminder of how things can fall apart without a challenge.

In a steel city, The Crucible has been brought to life in the heat of our times.

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