The Yard’s gender-swapped take on The Crucible is a tense, taut and truly radical production

In her performance as John Proctor, Caoilfhionn Dunne’s gender felt irrelevant – wonderfully so.

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Theatre is nothing if it is not alive. As The Crucible’s John Proctor made his final declaration of resistance to the Salem witch-hunters – “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” – a truly Biblical rainstorm began outside the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick. We all heard it: the Yard is built out of salvaged materials, and the storm sounded like hammers falling on the metal roof. It was an unforgettable, unasked-for flourish.

The advance publicity for the show majored on the fact that John Proctor would be played by a woman - Caoilfhionn Dunne – though the role was still John, not Jane. (Following the Brett Kavanaugh story, “a woman needed to own that narrative of being discarded by the culture of witch-hunting,” the director Jay Miller told The Stage.) In the end, though, Dunne’s gender felt irrelevant – wonderfully so. With slicked back hair, alternately in colonial breeches and a modern suit and tie, her John Proctor was a portrait of both human frailty and ultimate nobility. Truly radical: a woman allowed to be an everyman.

The Crucible is undoubtedly one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to produce. The sprawling cast-list – a budgetary nightmare – was here managed through extensive doubling. To avoid confusion, chairs with embroidered name plates were laid out at the start. Later, characters’ entrances were announced on a video screen. Miller’s extensive background notes and stage directions were narrated by the cast, an approach which is now becoming the norm. Washes of sulphorous yellow light gave the story of Salem’s growing hysteria an appropriately queasy feel.

The Yard’s version didn’t labour the contemporary parallels, which is probably for the best, since the message of The Crucible – “is the accuser always holy now?” – is profoundly out of step with the #MeToo moment. The cast start in tracksuits, before John and Elizabeth Proctor appear in historical dress. The girls, led by sadistic, love-torn adolescent Abigail Williams, wear the kind of sister-wife prairie dresses which I’m assured are back in fashion, although I will enter a nunnery before I succumb to something that looks like my mother’s worst Laura Ashley maternity outfit, so help me god.

Still, I love the alienation inherent in dabbling with period dress but not committing fully to it. Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels: women through history have suffered and sweated through corsets, heavy skirts and a whole wardrobe of constricting, disabling garments.

This was a tense, taut production, directed with clarity and acted with tenderness and subtlety. The only missteps were the gimmicks. An odd karaoke interjection was bad enough, but the looming presence of actors in alien masks and hoodies at crucial moments was faintly ridiculous. Surely the entire point of The Crucible is that there is nothing supernatural about this unfolding horror story?

"The Crucible" is at the Yard until 11 May. Details here

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.