The new Lyric Theatre is finally open for business and pleasure, and tonight’s eager audience pour into the Northern Bank Stage like cattle boarding some huge, oddly-shaped mahogany ark. It is a metaphorical Mayflower, bound for the New World.
The new building is the absolute antithesis of the old Lyric, which was too small and confining a theatre to meet with the big ambitions of its board. Now, they have an £18.1m monolith to play with. This is no time for modesty; they flex their muscles from the off.
Some eyebrows were raised when Northern Ireland’s only producing theatre announced that it would reopen with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible rather than a new work or one by an Irish artist. Yet The Crucible is an inspired choice: a blockbuster play for a blockbuster building.
Miller’s seminal work is one of the great modern allegories. It never fails to capture the imagination of successive generations, and it fits the Northern Bank Stage perfectly.
In the upstairs room of Rev Samuel Parris's home in the village of Salem, his daughter, Betty, is unconscious and suspected of witchcraft. Word spreads fast in this insular community, and Parris's worried flock congregate outside demanding answers.
When another preacher is sent for - the occult specialist, Rev John Hale - Parris's niece, Abigail, confesses to dancing in the woods with her friends. The flood gates threaten to burst open.
Rather than take her punishment and have done with it, however, Abigail spots an opportunity to wreak vengeance on her enemies within the parish. When she wakens from her slumber, Betty follows suit. 'I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!' she screams. 'I saw Elizabeth Proctor with the Devil!'
So begins the witch hunt that brought a New England Puritan community to its knees in 1692. Many innocent men and women were hanged, and many more were wrongly accused of consorting with the devil at the time. When the storm subsided, Salem was left almost empty, the surrounding fields putrid with decay, famished livestock left to wander the streets.
Miller wrote the play in the 1950s as a commentary on the House UnAmerican Activities Comittee investigation into Communist sympathisers in the United States, during which time several of Miller's close friends chose to 'name names', whilst others served time as a result. As is always the case, however, Miller's words resonate with contemporary audiences.
When Rev Hale clasps his books to his chest and declares that within them every mark of the devil has been recorded with precision, one cannot help but picture Alastair Campbell brandishing a dodgy Iraq dossier. Later, when John Proctor - God's good man - damns the lies of Christian women and their spineless husbands, the Northern Irish connotations are unavoidable.
Thankfully, there are laughs to be had amidst the gloom, and Lalor Roddy gets most of them as the downtrodden farmer, Giles Corry. First impressions mark his character out as a hapless, excitable fool. Yet it is Corry's unexpected legal acumen that gets the better of the erroneous court - much to the audience's approval - and it is he who posthumously provides the play's only Braveheart moment, when Elizabeth Proctor recalls his last words: 'More weight!'
The ensemble cast features some outstanding performances, not least from leading man, Patrick O'Kane, as the heroic farmer John Proctor. It was Proctor's infidelities that ultimately sparked the whole bloody mess to begin with, and O'Kane conveys his character's feelings of guilt and wretched inner turmoil with remarkable, smoldering consistency. O'Kane also has his comic moments, such as when his adulterous character forgets the one commandment that should, by now, be burned upon his very soul.
O'Kane is an extremely charismatic performer, and throughout is only ever upstaged by the imposing Alan Stanford as the dogmatic Deputy Governor Danforth and Roma Tomelty as the incorruptible Rebecca Nurse. Yet there are other performers who might learn to build tension through gesture and spoken word (as O'Kane does) rather than bellow at the first opportunity and take the wind out of a scene's sails.
Sabine Dargent's set design is perfectly period - all chunky wooden benches and battered metal plates - and Conal Morrison's direction is so fluent that, at times when Conor Linehan's music plays between acts, it seems as if we are watching a ballet.
But it is Joan O'Clery's costumes that give the play its real authenticity. She cloaks O'Kane in a long leather coat - the Batman of Salem! - and the rest of the lowly farmers in rustic, down-turned leather boots, whilst the women retain their virtue according to Puritan fashion and the judges - those damn fools - swan around in black blouses that billow after them like Dracula's cape.
For those too young to have experienced the Lyric during the heady days of the 1970s and 80s - when the likes of Liam Neeson captivated audiences on a regular basis - this production was meant for you.
The Lyric have reopened with a captivating, compelling and courageous production, one designed to showcase their many redoubtable talents and point the way toward an action-packed future dedicated 'to speech, to pomp and show'. Bring on the next play - it has a lot to live up to.
The Crucible runs at the Lyric Theatre until June 5.