Armitage ambiguity, Gisborne subtlety
Lately, I’ve been feeling guilty that I abandoned writing analytically about Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Guy of Gisborne at such an early stage of the blog. I know exactly why I did it, but it still nags at me. Now that the reasons that caused me to stop no longer seem so decisive, it makes sense to return to these themes. And now that I know how to cut my own video, I’m thinking of sprucing up those early acting posts with my own vid cuts as opposed to ones I found elsewhere. I admit that parts of me are loathe to rewatch all of Robin Hood. But I’ve been doing some spot watching, late at night, maybe to psyche myself up, especially stuff from the first season.
1.5, “Turk Flu,” is probably one of my favorite series 1 episodes, mostly because not only does the episode advance the Guy / Marian storyline, matters outside of what’s happening to Guy also interested me — both the plotline with regard to the enslaved “Saracens” and that respecting the miners — and there wasn’t too much boring hanging out with the boys in the woods. The first series was heavily metaphorically didactic with regard to world events, in ways I often found less than useful, but in this episode, I really liked the scene where Much tells Djaq to renounce Allah in order to gain freedom and Djaq challenges Much to renounce his G-d. Now, this episode has nothing to do with the Middle Ages and everything to do with our own preoccupations, and I can imagine it played in particular ways in the UK that might have differed from its reception in the U.S., but it was written in a way that a kid could understand, without being overly heavy, and by injecting humor into the topic. I always like it when ethnocentrism can be demolished through laughter as opposed to moralizing. Most people, including me, resent being moralized to. We’d rather come to our own conclusions.
Over-moralizing is a particular risk of the kind of stylized drama represented by Robin Hood, in which the good guys and the bad guys don’t even need to open their mouths to reveal themselves because their clothing already signals their moral status. Choosing to participate in a piece like this often means abjuring from the start the sort of ambiguity that makes a character’s storyline interesting; for all his insistence on the importance of finding contradictions in his characters and Guy in particular, even Armitage conceded that because Robin Hood was a story for children, the script had to make sure that Sir Guy was punished for his transgressions. Another strategy for avoiding the unsubtlety of this sort of drama is the retreat into camp. In this way, a piece makes palatable its own overdrawn rhetorical stances by constantly exaggerating them; camp relieves tension for the viewer by signaling a production’s willingness to see something serious as ridiculous. The BBC Robin Hood employed his strategy regularly as well, not least because a production like this can’t help but allude constantly to all the other versions of the “Robin Hood” story already found in the viewer’s repertoire, many of which now appear ridiculous in their earnest heroism. We need to undermine our heroes, these days if we are to accept them at all. However: the problem with camp, which can be a particularly abrasive form of irony, is that it risks damaging all the moral stances it may actually want itself to embrace — will the viewer miss the ironic outlining of what is meant to be meaningful, and be left only with the message that the central message of the piece is one of ridicule?
Part of the reason I have trouble with rewatching big swathes of Robin Hood has to do with the failure of the show to negotiate very consistently the complicated tension it set up between object lesson and ridiculousness in order to present an actual, meaningful hour of drama where the characters dealt with real and believable problems — particularly in series 3. When it managed it, the show could be masterful — but it forced even the committed viewer to witness all too many disappointing failures. The script too frequently put the resolution of the moral dilemmas in the hands of the “moral” forest gang, rather than showing an actual confrontations between the forces ranged on either side — so that the evil was almost always already evil before the viewer got to think about it. And when the scripts did challenge the goodness of the good boys, these dilemmas often appeared in the form of discussions rather than actual, material challenges to their virtue, which was all but foreordained except in a handful of cases — 1.8 or 3.10 being good examples of what could happen when the scriptwriters got up enough courage to break with this general pattern.
Bad from the beginning: Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) appears for the first time in Robin Hood 1.1. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Almost alone among the actors involved in the BBC Robin Hood, Richard Armitage found ways to transcend this central structural problem of the show. As I’ve written before, one of the strengths of Armitage’s performance throughout the series was his ability to mediate the conflict between Sunday School lesson and self-conscious, mugging for the camera-style self-ridicule: “As Guy of Gisborne, Armitage dances on a tightrope so taut that we’re never sure what’s pantomime and what’s life lesson.” I think that Armitage succeeded in transcending the show, or perhaps, better put, keeping his balance in the narrow spaces these problematic scripts offered for real conflict because — despite our expectations as viewers watching a role like that of Sir Guy — he consistently refused to make Guy a man who was evil for evil’s sake. In that sense, he customarily deprived us as audience members of that cheap frisson of enjoyment (or its mirror sentiment, moralistic disgust) that could have come from watching the evil man who commits his crime while salivating with joy about how bad he gets to be before, during, and after. Armitage was aided rhetorically in this by the presence of the Sheriff in the scripts, of course, who was a truer sadist than Guy and willingly took on the role of the villain who truly enjoys his villainy — so that black and white were occupied by Vaizey and Robin and Guy got to occupy the grey middle with an interesting amount of regularity — Guy was thus typically presented with choices that Vaizey wasn’t interested in and Robin’s moral position wasn’t sophisticated enough to accommodate.
Armitage perched on this potential ambiguity so persistently after 1.5 or 1.6, even when he did terrible things, until one almost thought his own compass might be spinning. He himself ultimately worried later that by letting viewers see into Guy’s psyche, he had failed to alienate the audience enough to make the role believable. Guy could be vicious and gratuitously violent, particularly in the first part of series 1, but with the exception of on very crucial moment, he often failed to display or indeed lacked obvious bloodlust. He rarely gloated without some kind of gestural self-undercutting, as if he thought it was often just too tedious or time-consuming to be purposefully mean; Guy’s poison came from his insecurities, signaled in Armitage’s posture, gestures, mannerisms, and microexpressions, rather than from his aggression, or even from a reaction to the unwillingness of very formulaic scripts to give him much moral agency. In contrast, Jonas Armstrong’s Robin rarely seemed seriously tempted to abandon his virtue. With one or two exceptions, he never managed a very convincing ambiguity, and thus never got the viewer to raise many questions about the valences of his decisions. Thus, after the first few episodes, in which the scripts established Guy’s thoroughgoing evil via abuse of villagers, child abandonment, and murders on command, through Armitage’s gestural repertoire, Guy developed the moral ambiguity of the Machiavellian who acts cruelly in service of other things, who will settle for being feared because he shows quite clearly with every movement that he does not believe he can be loved — even by the objects of his own love. In that sense, Armitage’s Sir Guy made the execution of evil intent in Nottingham seem more filled with moral conflict than its opposite number in the forest, which never seriously puzzled over its capacity to harm its objects except in the form of Robin’s resentment when the villagers experienced retribution for the gang’s good deeds on their behalf. In that sense, Armitage also seemed to make evil seem more sophisticated and mature — and potentially sad, or weary — in its worldview than did Armstrong’s purchase on virtue, simply because Armitage’s Guy accepted that his actions would not be understood in a way that Armstrong’s Robin, with his frequent resort to pouting or whining, never could quite manage. Guy’s actions may urge the viewer to subject Guy to ridicule, spite, hate, moral opprobrium; but Armitage’s gestures, mood, and acting let us see that the choice of the villain to be evil is neither simple nor beautiful from the villain’s perspective. On the contrary: Armitage’s Guy demonstrates time after time that it’s hard, quotidian, wearing labor that has to be repeated every time anew.
Torture bad. Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) beats Roy in order to obtain information, in a moment the script seems to want us to compare to the torture scandals of the post-Abu Ghraib period, in Robin Hood 1.4. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Armitage’s Guy of Gisborne was thus clearly evil in all his signals to the audience and at the same time ambiguous in its execution of that stance, making Guy’s position usually the most intriguing moral dilemma on offer for the alert viewer to parse. Armitage’s primary technique for creating ambiguity this ambiguity against the over-theatrical demands of the stylized moral narrative, I believe, is gestural and heavily related to status conflict. As an actor in general and when playing Guy in particular, Richard Armitage refuses to moralize for his audience, to force us to draw a conclusion about what he’s thinking that would lead us to cognitive closure and thus to moral judgment, because he so often seems to change status within a scene that the status transactions involved mean that as viewers we often can’t tell if he’s triumphing or giving in or if he even knows this himself. That is — as Guy, Armitage consistently refuses to bring a point home completely, so that even when his actions demand a moral judgment or some kind of evaluation from the viewer, his gestures tend to prevent us from coming to this judgment with anything like ease. To be even more precise — he founds this technique on his refusal to make it entirely easy for us to know what Guy is thinking in any particular situation. Several excellent Guy scenes are available in this episode, and as I think about them, I realize that I absolutely have to write about them. However, for now, I’m going to focus on my second favorite. I’m going to write about this issue — how Armitage navigates ethical dilemma vs. camp in a single character — in terms of more transparent moral conflicts eventually (I hope), but the scene that I have in mind to write about tonight is one of interest conflict that feeds into moral dilemma.
If you will remember, in this episode, early on, Sir Guy encounters the Night Watchman on the road near the mine, and wings “him” (we know that it’s Marian under the mask, but Guy does not, and indeed, will not, until deep into series 2). Guy also invites Marian to attend a fair at Nottingham Castle with him. In another amazing Guy scene, Marian accepts, partly in order to hide her activities after her father almost betrays her, accidentally, and so at this point, Guy and Marian are attending the fair and watching the archery competition.
***Sir Guy (Richard Armitage) and Marian (Lucy Griffiths) at the archery match in Robin Hood 1.5.
The scene begins (0:01) with Sir Guy’s unsubtle attempt to flirt with Marian — here, as an actor, Armitage retreats into the margin of camp to indicate both his desire to obtain Marian, and to facilitate for us the customary reading of the villain’s desire for the virtuous maiden — which is that it’s always illegitimate. He’s trying to be smooth, but Guy’s very smoothness signals to the viewer the inappropriateness of his desire from our perspective. At the same time, Guy takes himself with complete seriousness here, and the seductive tone of his speech makes us chill — both with awareness of the inappropriateness of his desire and in response to the clear expression of desire. These tensions place Guy at a particular stage of his ongoing status conflict with regard to Marian (something that’s constantly being negotiated in the series) and even with regard to his own vision of himself. Armitage signals Guy’s own simultaneous awareness of his desire and of its potential inappropriateness with a series of glances — at 0:02 (up status — speculative interest); 0:03 (low status – glance down to put himself together before the approach); 0:05 (seductive, almost feminine glance downward, with the sexy intonation on “apple”), and 0:06 (return to up status — attempt to look directly at her face). Note how his voice, his facial expression, the rhythm of his words, and his glance intensify through 0:07, so that by 0:08 he’s gone from seductive to either forceful, or cruel, depending on how you see it — his lips edging up into a faintly rapacious sneer that says “up status” but also “potentially threatened.”
At 0:10, camera shifts directly to Guy, and we see now that (whether he believes the superstition about apple peelings he’s narrating to flirt with, or not), he’s deadly serious about the subject, which is a hint about marriage and the evaluation of and perhaps attempt to influence Marian’s reaction, signaled by the marked opening of his eyes from 0:11 to 0:12 — a high status push. Camera moves to Marian, who intentionally bungles the apple peeling, and then back to Guy — whose eye movements follow the apple peel, but simultaneously signal a moment of disappointment, and even more, subtle humiliation as he takes in the rebuff with a split second breath of minor exasperation or frustration (?) at 0:15. This impression that Guy has now taken on low status is enhanced by the way that the camera moves away from him at 0:16, to show him hanging his head slightly. By 0:17, however, he’s shaken it off — Guy will not give up — moving to a statement about how the next archer will impress Marian, with a proprietary gesture at 0:18 that reasserts high status and a nod to self-assure of his confidence at 0:19. At 0:20, he’s dropping his hand onto her arm like he has every right to, and his fingers encounter the blood on Marian’s sleeve — from the wound he inflicted on the Night Watchman earlier in the episode. The question on every viewer’s mind — will Guy realize? The question on my mind — how does Armitage navigate status while he’s trying to tell us what Guy thinks or knows.
What becomes obvious at this point is a move that gives fantastic evidence for the many-layered depths of Armitage’s artistry. Because Armitage stills Guy very noticeably here, he gives us as viewers time to draw breath in anticipation of what might happen. But the stillness also focuses the viewer very clearly on Guy’s thought processes, which grab our entire attention in the remainder of the scene. At 0:25, when the camera returns to Guy, he’s still pondering the blood on his fingers, holding his eyes very still, even as he speaks — neutral status. His motion at 0:29, when the camera returns to him, is very intent, very controlled, so we can see how much he’s concentrating on the puzzle he’s been presented with, and his eyes remain steady even through 0:31, when his hand is moving, his fingers (re-)establishing the texture of blood against his thumb. He’s even, status-wise, with Marian here, as he asks her for information. At 0:32, his eyes remain in the same position for two whole seconds, so we have the complete opportunity to absorb the entire gravity of the blinking that signals his confusion, before he raises them at 0:34, when he looks disturbed enough that his sudden head motion at 0:35 makes it seem like he must know — even as he uses that classic “face clearing” move of Armitage’s, the contraction of medial frontalis, which also re-establishes his status with the lift of his head and chin.
The practical consequence of this scene, of course, is that Guy does nothing to Marian — so the implication is that he does not know or does not realize explicitly that she is the Night Watchman. This failure to realize is necessary for the ongoing dramatic tension of the series. However, if Guy simply acts as if he doesn’t know, it makes the force of evil here (the force that wants to shut down the Night Watchman’s charitable activities) simply look stupid — and thus unserious, unreal. The atmospheric result of Armitage’s acting militates against that possibility — that Guy doesn’t know what’s happening — because as audience members who see Guy wrestling with his status throughout the scene and wondering how to respond to Marian’s statements, we know that Guy has drawn some conclusion, but not exactly which ones. We think, “he must realize, he doesn’t realize, does he realize subconsciously, is this a conclusion he simply can’t accept?” If Guy leaves the scene not knowing, he’d be low status; if he left it knowing, he’d be high status, but that would ruin the plot. Because we don’t know what he knows, but only that he knows something, his status remains ambiguous despite his attempts to re-establish it. As a consequence, as viewers we are drawn further into the ethical dilemmas created by the extent of his potential realization: does he not want to know? Is his failure to move further a consequence of his feelings about Marian — or an inability to accept that the object of his desire could potentially be more than a figurehead, but an agent in her own right? What is in his mind? Who is in control as we leave the scene? Guy? or Marian?
Guy knows he’s been had by Robin — but does he know it’s by Marian as well? Marian (Lucy Griffiths), Sir Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage), Sir Edward (Michael Elwyn), and the Sheriff (Keith Allen) award the prize to Rowan (Lyndon Ogbourne) in Robin Hood 1.5. My cap.
I think Armitage navigates this scene with serious artistry. He manages simultaneously to leave intact the plotline that requires Marian to remain undiscovered even as he leads us to ask serious questions about Guy’s knowledge. He makes Guy’s advances to Marian both sinister (and thus ridiculous) and entirely serious (and thus, in turn, sinister), dancing on the tightrope between morality and ridicule. He balances the insecurity of Guy’s attitude toward Marian (will she think I am good enough?) with the arrogance of a man who thinks the only way to win a lover is to impress, so that these two stances are clearly connected as two sides of one facet of Guy’s character, and the difficult status dilemma that characterizes everything about Guy’s decisions remains intact. As a consequence of leaving Guy’s status so ambiguous, he refuses to moralize about Guy’s actions — and prevents us from doing so, either.
I could watch this scene again and again, Mr. Armitage. And have.