The sense of foreboding is immediate and never recedes. Yaël Farber's gripping revival of Arthur Miller's 20th-century classic is conjured out of a shadowy gloom by incantation. A woman chants while tracing the perimeter of the Old Vic's intimate in-the-round stage. It is as if the population of Salem, Massachusetts, has been summoned to re-enact the 17th-century witch trials that made the town famous. They gather like ghosts trapped in a cautionary tale - one that Miller wrote to portray the injustices of the anti-Communist purges of his own era. And as the innocent lives of Salem's population are randomly ruined with accusations of witchcraft, the 1953 play still brings to mind the McCarthy hearings that just as eagerly destroyed reputations.
Richard Armitage, whose deep-fathomed voice could play God's, generates storm-force power as the farmer John Proctor, although it is actually an uncomplicated role to play. Proctor is a good, hard-working man whose only flaw is that his head was once turned by his former maid Abigail (a stunning debut by Samantha Colley). It's the kind of flaw that makes him human and so is not really a flaw at all.
Still, the beefy Armitage has the bearing to carry the full weight of Miller's moral authority, while Colley magnificently transmits Abigail's ability to control men - with sex, innocence or a terrifyingly convincing piety. There's also terrific work by William Gaunt as Proctor's plain-speaking neighbour Giles, and Jack Ellis as the merciless judge.
The revelation here, however, is that Miller's play has as much to say about today's religious fundamentalism as it does about his intended targets.
And the surprise is that Farber's production so triumphantly suspends time that three-and-a-half hours pass unnoticed.