Anyone could be unlucky enough to be murdered by a knife-wielding lunatic or shot by a trigger-happy policeman, but death or incarceration by a deluded justice system is a different kind of nightmare.

The essence of this nightmare is distilled in Arthur Miller's great play, which defies the term "classic" only in the sense that it is very difficult to watch with the kind of detatchment that normally implies. In fact, as the net relentlessly closes around its innocent victims, it almost creates the

illusion of events unfolding in real time, so that no matter how often you see it you half hope that this time it will turn out differently.

Like Shakespeare's plays, this one has become a mirror for our times. Miller famously wrote about the 17th century Salem witch trials in the early 1950s as a parallel to the anti-Communist hysteria then gripping America. While it was obvious that there would be further parallels with more recent events, I was surprised how striking these are in Dominic Cooke's superb new RSC production, and without any need for directoral underlining or flashing lights.

There is Deputy-Governor Danforth's entirely Bush-like "either for us or against us" speech, but also the Rev Hale's (initial) enthusiasm for a brave new era in which society is under attack from witchcraft. Of course there is a basic difference between witches and terrorists in that the latter do actually exist. But then, so did Communists. And given the rapid advance of religious fundamentalism, who is now to say that actual witch-hunts are necessarily a thing of the past?

This production, simply but handsomely designed by Hildegard Bechtler, has excellent performances - not unexpectedly from the towering Iain Glen as the flawed, wavering hero John

Proctor, but also from James Laurenson as Danforth, who arguably now emerges more clearly as the play's key character. What is so scary about this man is the way he has constructed a fortress of reason on a quicksand of religious mumbo-jumbo.

There might have been a time when you emerged from a performance of this play reassured by a notion of historical progress, but no longer. It's a production to convince you both of Miller's greatness and of the theatre's continuing importance.

* Running time: Three hours. Until March 18.

Terry Grimley