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Sunday, I betook myself (about 400 mi round trip — although give me seven hours of driving in my comfortable 2005 Taurus over an airplane journey any day at the moment) to Chicago — hog butcher for the world — to see the screen version of The Crucible. Why, you ask? Since I saw it so many times in person, and then again had access to it via Digital Theatre Plus? One reason was that I figured I’d be able to talk a fellow fan into seeing it with me, and I wanted to have the long debrief with her that I didn’t have a chance for the last time I saw her. A second was that I had never seen this version on a large screen — I’d had the Digital Theatre version on almost infinite loop during the summer of 2015, as compensation while I was watching the first two seasons of Hannibal, but on my 15 in laptop screen. I wanted to show my limited financial support for bringing it to the U.S. And I hoped for a little bit of that feeling of jolt that always comes when seeing a fresh version of Armitage’s work — in this case, in a new format. My fellow fan had seen it in London, too, so we had a lot of material for analysis.
It was a great day. I saw a part of Chicago I hadn’t seen before — Wrigleyville, a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play. The streets are tree-lined, and all of the trees were in bloom. It’s one of those neighborhoods occupied primarily by yuppies, many with children — a low-end condo price seems to be about $350k — and they were definitely out in force on such a sunny day. They pick the neighborhood, one assumes, because the architecture is just what a wannabe gentrifier is looking for: lots of historic front, low rise buildings that were originally occupied by the (white) working class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This part of Lake View has been gentrifying since at least the 1980s. Fellow fan kept grousing about yuppies and gentrification until I pointed out to her that not that long ago, we were both yuppies ourselves. We had a chat about life, the universe and everything, a little about Richard Armitage, a little bit about placing ourselves in a fandom that has changed so much since we first got involved in it. Probably the best part of the day was my conscious decision to move the radio dial every time political news came on during the drive. So, a day without exposure to the news and the fandom turned out to do me a lot of good emotionally.
The theater we were in had about sixty seats and there were perhaps twenty-five people in them. So the screen was not monumental, but still gave a good effect — not drastically disproportional to what we saw in at the Old Vic. Most of the people at this showing seemed to be elderly couples — I think the major motivator for Music Box Theatre was probably the English theater connection and that was the audience they attracted. Ticket price was $15 (pus $1.25 booking fee), which seems to be in the range to on the high side of an average movie ticket in Chicago proper.
You all know the plot of The Crucible by now and have hopefully seen it one way or another, so I’ll skip over the “exposition” part of this post and get straight to the response and evaluation piece.
The decisive quality of this piece is the fact of its editing. The play was filmed during live performances in the round, but while we occasionally see the faces of audience members, the edit does not play up the “in the round” features of the play; the general effect is more like that of conventional television editing. This has its up- and downsides.
I was surprised, when people who had only seen the recorded version told me that they didn’t see why everyone was so excited about the staging or about Armitage’s performance — but I really noticed yesterday that the main effect of the editing is that a chief advantage of the staging (apart from all of its atmospheric qualities) is missing. The editor decides who I look at, at any given moment, and takes that decision away from me. This has the negative effect that I spent a lot less time looking at Proctor — and missed some of my favorite “little, hidden” moments in Armitage’s performance. I don’t get the replay of all of the little details that I loved so well in London. Also, the play has many fewer humorous moments. But the editing also creates two positive effects.
First, it refocuses the viewer’s attention on the narrative in a way that is beneficial to it. I found myself thinking that the screen version was a lot shorter. It wasn’t, really — all we miss are some of the length of the scene changes — but the editing has the effect of moving the narrative forward more convincingly. I felt in London like the climax of the play was quite long, was possibly located in Act Two, which was the best act there; that the intermission made us feel tense, and that the beginning of Act Four ruined the tempo of the play. To some extent the tempo issue is inherent in the play’s structure, but in this edit, the pacing really does put the climax where it belongs, in Proctor’s animalistic outburst at the end of Act Three. Second, the edit also has the effect of focusing our attention away from what was in my opinion one of the London play’s most problematic and unexamined moments: the way our glances lingered in Tituba. Sarah Niles did a perfect job of inhabiting an at best questionable, at worst racist stereotype, and the London play dragged that out mercilessly, particularly in Act One. It bothered me a lot less here. Similarly, the camera has a lot less time than I did in person to pay attention to the writhing girls — in Act One but particularly in Act Three. On the whole I found this a beneficial change. As viewers we are aware of them, and they influence the tension and so on, but the editor is more focused on the adults’ reaction to the girls than I was as a theatergoer, so that the sheer horror of the end of Act Three is much more palpable.
So: the play becomes even more an ensemble affair on screen than it was in the round in London. I think this is probably not bad dramatically; it still captures the essence of many of these performances and I think it does one actor in particular a favor: it allows us to pay much more attention to Natalie Gavin as Mary Warren (whose performance went most unnoticed in the reviews — unjustly). But it will bother viewers who were primarily interested in Armitage’s performance. He gets some lingering glances from the camera — the washing episode at the beginning of Act Two is in better focus and longer than it was when I saw it — but he can’t ever be the sole focus of the editor.
I had five other responses (unrelated to this general point, and to each other):
One: for whatever reason I found myself thinking about the persecution of Muslims a lot while watching the play this time. There’s a definite difference, watching this play now as opposed to in the summer of 2014.
Two: Samantha Colley can apparently cry on demand, I found that creepy in London, and even creepier here. However, the edit also moves her out of the center of attention pretty decisively after Act One, and even during Act One. The ambivalence of the attraction and conflict between her and Proctor was a lot more palpable in London.
Three: I also noticed something I hadn’t thought about much before in the play itself — the way the theme of pretense emerges particularly toward the end of Act Three; usually I think of this as being the major concern of Act Four (will Proctor be sincere, will he confess a lie, etc.). Thinking about the connection might make Act Four more intelligible for me (or convincing) if I thought about it more. I think I noticed it — again — because I wasn’t focused on all those screaming girls in the same way that I was in London.
Three: The historical inaccuracies were not bedeviling me throughout this performance the way they did in 2014. It occurred to me after I watched that really, I’ve been teaching the Salem witch episode practically annually since 1994 when I started teaching university. I didn’t teach every single one of those years, from 1994 to 2011 every year that I did teach, I covered it at least once. Then from 2011 to 2014 I taught it every semester, so twice per year, and one year I covered it in summer school as well. Now I haven’t thought about it at all in much depths since 2014. The only place it really bothered me was in Act Four when I kept thinking, no, no, no. In any case my increasing distance from that particular historical episode may have enhanced my enjoyment of the play yesterday.
Four: It’s hard to put my fingers on this — but there’s something so vulnerable about Armitage’s performance of Proctor and the edit seems to enhance it from my perspective. I have to go to bed now but this would deserve its own post. Someday.
If you’re still deliberating about going to the final showing on Wednesday: The Music Box Theatre is easy to reach by car — my trip was long but essentially I turned left under the expressway after exiting, drove a few miles, turned right, and I was there. We had coffee at Julius Meinl on W. Addison before the film, and afterwards ate at a sushi place that was solid but nothing special and a gelato place that was simply excellent. The thing that’s likely to be a hassle is parking — free street parking is several blocks away from the theater, if you can find it. Street parking near the theater is all metered and/or permitted. The theater recommends the parking lot at Blaine Elementary, one block north on N. Southport, which is what I did, but it’s not cheap.
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You were probably as dismayed as I was (even if it was understandable) about jazzbaby1’s recent decision to end her Richard Armitage blog.
Good news today: she’s continuing to blog publicly. So if you want to know how her story goes on, follow her at her new home.
See you there!
Did anyone see it? Here’s the original link.
Screenshots from @mooseturds:
In case U don't want to click on the link to give ad $, here's the negative C+ Collider review of Pilgrimage (they removed the page). pic.twitter.com/YJPIj6guTv
— moose turds (@mooseturds) April 25, 2017