Wednesday 22 November 2017

Stage: Saoirse enters Crucible for difficult Broadway switch

Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan

Maggie Armstrong

In all things stage, Saoirse Ronan has arrived. On Tuesday, the Carlow actress embarks on her Broadway debut as Abigail in The Crucible, directed by Ivo van Hove at the Walter Kerr Theatre (the same theatre once at the centre of Christian protests against Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary). Ronan will scarcely have flown back to New York from tomorrow's Oscars in LA when previews kick off. The play opens on April 7.

Theatre is in its nature an exclusive art - exclusive to time and place and the size of the lucky one's bank balance. No one seems to care that you will never get to see so many of the productions you read about (making theatre enthusiasts an extremely generous, or extremely strange kind of people. That's you I mean). But it doesn't get much more remote and exotic than this mounting of Arthur Miller's 1953 play, by a rock star director who most recently did Lazarus by David Bowie and Enda Walsh as Bowie lay dying.

A Belgian who has sped through the classics in the UK including a nude A Streetcar Named Desire, Van Hove also seems to have a Midas touch with Miller. Reports of A View From the Bridge in 2014 at the Young Vic were ecstatic and indeed the play earned him a Laurence Olivier and a Critic's Circle award, both for Best Director.

He has assembled a premium cast of actors who criss-cross from stage to screen, including RADA-schooled Ben Whishaw, Tony-winning Sophie Okonedo and Ciarán Hinds, from Belfast, who just played next to Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet.

But Ronan's pearly-white face is on the poster and her name, though Abigail is not the character with the most lines, is selling the tickets. Broadway shows aren't made anymore without Hollywood names on the bill, just as star power is needed to fill a West End musical or a Druid production of Big Maggie.

This stirs up a cauldron of excitement all right, but it creates problems for everybody. Film stars often have much less practice, but they are subjected to even higher critical standards than your regular stage legend. There is a morbid fascination with what a film star might do wrong. We saw this when one of Ronan's old co-stars, Keira Knightly, hit the boards as the titular Therese Raquin on Broadway last year.

The New York Times rather unfairly focused on her body in period dress; "cadaverously angular from the waist up," while the Wall Street Journal stated "she gives the kind of flat, underprojected performance you'd expect from an untrained Broadway débutante with limited stage experience." Perhaps in a rush to file their copy that night they thought, she has her success as a movie star - why should she have more here, on our turf?

The general feeling is that someone who has made their fame courting a camera lens simply doesn't have the stagecraft for those hallowed proscenium halls of Broadway.

As Saoirse flits from pre-Oscar luncheons to Vanity Fair photo shoots and launches a Hozier video along the way, she prepares to face these actual demons. The contrast between her nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards and a Broadway debut will be irresistible to critics who wield more power than they ought to. The film icon going on 22, a child in The Clinic who won an Oscar nomination as a vengeful tween in Atonement then went quasar right up to the glorious Brooklyn, has never even been on stage before. Apart from playing a tree in her school play aged six, she has said. She has described her relationship with the camera as "sacred" and as a close friendship.

"The main thing for me was to do theatre around the age of 20 or 21. I didn't want to do that too soon, but now that's going to happen with The Crucible," she told the RTÉ Guide last autumn. "That will be a big adjustment for me, having to hit the back row, because everything is usually so small for me." (Her "rehearsal schedule" forbade her from giving an interview at this time).

In Abigail, she has been handed a very difficult part to do well. The Crucible is set during the Salem witch trials in 1692, when a small town of Puritan believers becomes hysterical with suspicion of witchcraft among a group of girls. Abigail, the "strikingly beautiful" (Miller wrote) orphan of 17, is the ringleader of these dark practices in the forest. She has had an affair with married John Proctor (Ben Whishaw) and been cast out of his home by his wife, Elizabeth, who Abigail now wants to harm via voodoo and the like.

Abigail is on stage for quite short, febrile bursts but drives the plot to its unpleasant end, as she rats on the other girls and causes moral havoc in the town. It takes a singularly likeable force such as Ronan to take her on, as a pallid Winona Ryder did in Miller's 1996 film adaptation.

At which point we remember she's Saoirse Ronan. She'll be fine.

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