First reactions to Richard Armitage in “Staged” (1999)

I swung by work one last time this morning to catch the mail and it was here! Yay!

I think. I watched it at lunch and now I’ve gotten off the road to blog about it. And get interrupted by a talkative waitress. Oh well. Tomorrow is going to be a very, very long day.

First, a thousand thanks to Denison Entertainment for making this material available to us. There’ve been some issues along the way with communication, but I’m really glad this material is now on the record, so to speak.

There’d been some question  in advance about whether this could possibly be the student film production Richard Armitage had referred to as one of the low points of his career. I don’t have time to look for the article where he said it, but the operative descriptors were “vaselined lens” and “American accent” along with something about jumping around on sofas. And he mentioned that his LAMDA tutor didn’t care for it. Even if it’s a bit more noirish than I care for (and allowance has to be made for it being a black-and-white film), I don’t think the camera work here quite qualifies as “vaselined lens” and if Armitage is doing an American accent, I missed it (though it’s not the penetrating RP that he affects for someone like Bill Chatford, nor the clearly northern accent of Mr. Thornton). A lot of sofas are involved, but no one stands on one. And there’s only one scene where I think if I were a tutor, I would have intervened to say, “Don’t do that, that way, under any circumstances in future, ever again.”

[ETA: note my backpedaling on the accent issue here, after a few more views.]

In any case, whether or not “Staged” was what he was referring to, I don’t think Richard Armitage has any need to feel ashamed of this project reappearing now. It doesn’t do him any harm at all, and says some interesting things about the state of affairs in his artistry in 1999 — remember, this is the point at which he’d just left LAMDA and was embarking on his acting career under his own auspices (See Denison’s description of his first encounter with Armitage here), but still before the Royal Shakespeare Company phase of his education. I discussed this phase earlier, here, but we have more data now. That is: actual data!

I think that looking at this film really raises interesting questions about the beginning of Richard Armitage’s career and it definitely affects what I’ve understood about it so far. I’ll try to detail at the end of this piece what I think those issues are.

Unfortunately, this DVD *did not* play well with my MacBook Pro. So no screen caps here. I tried three different methods of getting them, but no dice. I could probably demonstrate things better with them than I will be able to below, but we’ll see what happens when I get back to a PC. Or perhaps screencaps will magically appear from elsewhere (wink).

First, however, a few bonbons, which would be better illustrated, but oh well:

  • Staged has answered a fundamental wardrobe question for me, that is: What would Richard Armitage look like in pants with a front pleat? (The ones he has on aren’t especially well fitted, but nonetheless, I get an idea. And no, he doesn’t really need a front pleat, especially not here, where his thigh musculature is relatively undeveloped. In short — Armitage looks gorgeous, but this is clearly before the level of preoccupation with the appearance of his physique that Lucas North brought into his life).
  • Second: A Richard Armitage character smokes! You know how I feel about that! Here it’s done in a scene that makes a true statement about the character, so it’s not about sexiness as much as it is about coping (which is, frankly, one mode of how I think most smokers smoke). [NB: please no smoking / smokers hate in the comments.]
  • Third, he still has that rear hair squidge thing, but you can see from this film a bit how his hair grows out at the hairline level. As well as — yes, as earlier commentators have mentioned — his chest and lower abdominal hair growth patterns.
  • In a graphic shown early in the film, you can see this photo of Armitage, which is supposed to be his character, Darryl — so now we know that image has to be from after LAMDA or after, but still slightly before the RSC.
  • Armitage’s opening line — which starts with an “aaaaah,” is amazing. The Voice was there at the beginning. Although he sounds like a very high baritone, almost a tenor, in most of this production. I see some ringtones coming once people work their magic on the data.
  • One of those scenes that substantiates the sweet Armitage is also totally present in this film. It’s like there’s something for every fangirl. Could he have been planning that back in 1999?
  • We get to see him doing something that looks like it could be a gesture in the direction of oral sex. That seems to be what they’re signaling — albeit in a remarkable serious way, and unfortunately no one’s breathing hard.
  • Richard Armitage likes chunky watches. Oh yes.

And now, to the main event.

In this short film, Richard Armitage plays Darryl Newman, an actor who’s chasing a stage comeback (after some career problems unspecified in the script — either film flops or just a general tendency toward typecasting that’s impacted his creativity negatively). Newman’s acting in a play with his ex-romantic partner, Lily (Jennifer Taylor Lawrence), that he plans as a move toward rescuing his artistic creativity, and she’s experiencing problems with her role, apparently out of nervousness. Most of the film deals with their hashing over their history and needs and the break in their relationship due to an apparent betrayal on Lily’s part that has figured in the boulevard press.

I’m afraid that I didn’t especially like this script. It seemed almost self-consciously film-schoolish to me. Moreover, the script and the film decisively prejudice the encounter captured in the work toward the male point of view — a broken relationship film that makes the man seem like the victim. On the one hand, I appreciate that for practical reasons, because I never would have paid $20 if Richard Armitage had had only a bit role. I was only watching this film for him. (Although he has solid, if not necessarily fireworkish, chemistry with Jennifer Taylor Lawrence, who does a great job — and I discovered while reading her imdb page that she, too, started her arts career as a dancer. But she’s not the point for me here.) On the other, however, I am a woman myself. So, for the first two minutes, I found myself thinking, “Sigh, is Richard Armitage really going to be in one of these ‘Let’s hate on the woman’ movies?” Really, Armitage? Mr. Quintessential Women’s Favorite Actor? (I guess this was made before we gave him that title.) Particularly the childish and totally nonsensical script move at 9:16, when Darryl alleges that Lily is walking away from him because he’s not good enough, reads to me like something out of a therapy session as opposed to a real dialogue. And I won’t even discuss the ending of the film, which is simply not consistent with anything that happens anywhere in the script up until then.

And here the women’s issue is a general script issue — one of balance and realism. I get that this is a short film intended to display a budding student’s craft, and that you can’t depict everything in a relationship in ten to fifteen minutes. As adults who are actually in relationships know, however, problems tend to be created or at least escalated by both partners. The script eventually backed off a little from its imbalance, but honestly, in my opinion, not enough to recover from this problem — it implies the breakup is entirely the woman’s fault for being unfaithful and portrays Darryl as the victim of infidelity — even though Darryl says in the beginning in a scene that’s meant to be part of the play that he/men have issues with monogamy. So maybe the script was meant to be hinting that Darryl expected Lily to be faithful while he was not? Not entirely clear — nor is Darryl and Lily’s exactly relationship, as the implication that the conflict between them rests on marital infidelity seems to be placed in a scene that’s actually a play rehearsal. I am not a naive interpreter of narratives, but I was confused and perhaps that was intentional.

Insofar as the script was saved, however, it was by the fact that the film editing makes it (I assume intentionally) difficult to discern at first view what scenes (or parts of scenes) are meant to be pieces of the play they’re acting in, and which scenes (or parts of scenes) are intended as actual conversations between the now-separated romantic partners. That is — one tends to think of the whole piece as a dialog between Lily and Darryl and the script of the play they are rehearsing is simply another way for them to talk about their problems. But the intentional complication of the viewer perspective reads like film school.

You know, script writers, actually half of the population are women. We work at home or in the workplace, thus we make discretionary income decisions for our families, we have our hands on money and we buy film tickets. And we tend to like more intimate dramas, like this could have been … as opposed to big shoot’emups.

Cough.

Anyway. That said. I set out wanting to discuss Richard Armitage.

What’s really interesting about this performance is that (aside from one fairly severe misstep) it’s so complex and naturalistic in comparison to, well — just about everything we’ve seen since 2003. That is — this performance is different from essentially everything we’ve seen Armitage do. The closest comparison is possibly Philip Turner in the Inspector Lynley episode — but this is more emotional, and better. Seriously, the first time I saw this, I had to shake my head while I was watching it.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not saying Armitage’s performance is unrecognizable. There’s plenty of familiar Armitage to see from the prominent occipitofrontalis to his tendency to gaze in way that makes him seem both engaged with his interlocutor (in this case, interlocutrix) and some faraway horizon — and his faraway horizon gazes are entrancing as ever, because his brow seems so much more severe in this piece for some reason that I can’t entirely put my fingers on. The microexpressions are definitely there and noticeable, so they must have preceded the RSC, even if they’re not always incredibly prominent.

But the tendency for the viewer who thinks she knows Armitage already to be surprised starts from the very beginning, where Lily breaks the scene they’re rehearsing at a crucial point because of reported physical discomfort, and Darryl tries to encourage her but then gives up in frustration. When Armitage is depicting frustration, over his entire career he shows a pattern of backing off rather than attacking, and that’s how this scene starts — with Darryl trying to be understanding, and then leaving in frustration rather than escalate the scene. But what surprises here is not so much the back-off, but the relative soft-spoken tones of Armitage’s delivery. This is hugely naturalistic speech in comparison to almost everything we’ve ever seen of Armitage’s work. Maybe this has something to do with Armitage being an actor who’s playing an actor (as opposed to being an actor playing some other role) and this question would bear some further reflection — as if Darryl is one of the roles that Armitage has been able to draw the most on from his own lived experience (at least at that point). But it leaves the viewer with the (always seductive, always deceptive, always illusory) frisson of thinking that one’s almost seeing Richard Armitage as he might have been in 1999. The very occasional moments of character break don’t refute so much as underline this possibility. And the script enhances this like crazy, especially Darryl’s statement about losing himself in a character for long periods of time. (Again, I’m not saying this is Armitage’s motivation, but he really sells it here and it’s similar enough to other things he’s said in the meantime.)

In any case, what we don’t see here are the usual layers of the Armitage performance I’m accustomed to, which is in itself a bit surprising. There are moments of pre-historic Armitage, one might say — things we recognize, like the narrowing of the eye (oris orbiculari, something I have yet to write about), for instance, or the nervous muscular loosening of the jaw (as at 3:18) that sometimes looks like preening because of the angle of Armitage’s jaw. But in general, another thing that surprises about this performance is that Armitage’s gestural language is yet again different from what we’ve seen in almost all of his television roles. No tongue of concentration and although I’ve watched it six times, none of the typical Armitage nervous acting tics. The crossed arms are here, in at least two places, but never in bravado or scorn, only in self-defense. And the rapid blinking is used in at least once scene to reflect emotion that I wouldn’t have expected that to use. The very naturalistic gestural usage here is again notably difference from the visceral broadcast of emotions that we can see on Armitage’s face in his early career television roles and then again, in refined form, in North & South.

I may not be taken seriously in this, given my romp on the script (above), but I do think there was a sense in which the camera shots really favored Armitage in a lot of ways. (The director’s clearly more interested in looking at his expressions than at Lawrence’s, which again would be a problem for me if I weren’t watching for the reasons that I am watching.) There are six or seven moments when we see him, for about one to two seconds, looking so poignant, abandoned (o:4:19 — this is a cap for the ages), angry, amused, etc. — and then these are gone. The short-shot format of most of this film really favors Armitage’s skills as they were at the time.

This is not to say there are no mishaps. I don’t believe him, at about 6:35, when he says he doesn’t forgive betrayals. It’s odd because he doesn’t bring his microexpressions to bear here at all, as he would nowadays. (Well, I guess he has learned something since 1999). Similarly, his statement at 7:00 that his only issue is with Lily is simply overdelivered. Not inherently — in the sense that no actor would do it that way — but because it’s really outside of the character he’s set up for Darryl up to this point — who is understanding, trying to help, and whose anger about the potential flop of his play is underlain with despair — as opposed to explosive. This may be an editing issue, but Armitage’s emotion here is simply too sudden, and he retreats from it almost immediately — we almost don’t hear his next line, and his head is bowed in a bit of suppressed rage (although this is probably also a concession to the shorter Lawrence).

That he is capable of rage is almost immediately apparent afterwards, as one of those brief shots on his face at 7:21 shows that Darryl is truly resentful (although we don’t know yet entirely about what, as it’s not totally clear that Lily is his ex-wife — an intentional confusion by the script, apparently — though again this may be a moment where Darryl is shifting into his character as they resume the rehearsal of the play). The totally inconsistent ending notwithstanding, anyone who’s occasionally wondered (as I have) whether Armitage could marshal the inner rage to play a naturalistic (as opposed to Guy of Gisborne) character who truly hurt or even raped a woman, should no longer have any doubts. Although Darryl’s anger was undercut by the script, the scenes where Darryl appears to force himself on Lily initially (uch, I feel another objection coming here) are convincing enough to suggest that that capacity is there. Again, of course, as viewers, we have the problem that we can’t tell if this Darryl or the unspecified character that Darryl is playing — but the unaccustomed tempestuousness was pretty convincing to me.

Wow. Naturalism and Richard Armitage. It was, frankly, eye opening.

So the main question that I have after seeing this, and then the TV roles that followed when his stage career began to take off — Lee Preston (Cold Feet), Paul Andrews (Between the Sheets), John Standring (Sparkhouse), Ian Macalwain (Ultimate Force) in chief, but also Steven (Frozen), which was filmed in 2003 but not released until later — is:

What the heck happened to Armitage at the Royal Shakespeare Company? All of these performances named above, with the possible exception of Steven in Frozen, are much more heavily mannerist (layered, if you like) than this role. Is that what the RSC taught Armitage? If so, I’m tempted to say that LAMDA offered an excellent education in a quite naturalistic, believable acting style, but that the RSC did something that created artistic problems for Armitage on a significant level — and I say this although I love the Baroque qualities that Armitage, in my opinion appropriately, give Guy of Gisborne — that he was not able to release himself from until he played Lucas North or perhaps even later.

Footnote to the question — I wonder if part of the issue was the way that Armitage’s emotions move across his face, so very, very swiftly — that wasn’t perhaps suitable for theater? There’s a true unstudied volatility in some scenes here (I’m thinking of the scene where Darryl approaches Lily in the dressing room, or the scene where he laughs after drinking from her spiked beverage can) that I can see not fully catching an audience on stage simply because it passes so quickly.

In any case — definitely worth it both for students of Armitage’s career and biography, and for those who are examining his acting style.

I await your thoughts.

~ by Servetus on June 26, 2013.

50 Responses to “First reactions to Richard Armitage in “Staged” (1999)”

  1. What can I say that you haven’t already said, Serv? Wonderful and thought-provoking piece… I’ve only watched STAGED once, but I superficially enjoyed it. I agree about the overdelivery of that line “My only problem is WITH you!” – that was jarring – I thought he should have put the emphasis on “you,” not “with.” It just seemed weird. I liked their chemistry and the coloring/lighting was interesting to me. Very… theatrical (duh).

    The whole thing where we aren’t sure at any given time (on stage) whether they’re rehearsing lines from the play or hashing out their coupledom issues: This reminded me very much of a key scene in “Shakespeare in Love,” which came out the previous year in 1998. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. 🙂

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    • Thanks, AwkCE. I only saw that once, and it was dubbed in German, so I’m afraid that I’ve totally forgotten it. However, that would totally make sense as to the narrative blurring.

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    • I think what I disliked about that moment was less the intonation (although I agree with you that it was wrong) but the sudden escalation, and the overcrease of the eyebrows. I thought that when I saw the trailer but seeing it in context didn’t change my mind.

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  2. I had been hesitant to order this, but you are convincing me.

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    • $20 is about what I’d spend without thinking on a restaurant meal. So I wasn’t afraid of what would happen if I didn’t like it. It wasn’t a major discretionary purpose for me. There are lots of things you’d like in this. Plenty of topless Armitage. Other reviewers have discussed that, though, so I left it 🙂

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      • Like Christine, and because of your review Servetus, I might actually consider buying it. My reason for not initially was that I had this feeling that it might not actually come to be distributed. This was a fear many had, because it took so long to be shipped out. Also, I wasn’t really sure this was something endorsed by Richard to be released. Some actors agree to do a film, but don’t actually sign a release or contract allowing for sale or distribution. But nothing came up about that either, so that is good also. Anyway, I am so very glad that I was wrong in all respects. Thanks for taking the time to do this review, Servetus.

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        • I wasn’t worried about the permissions issue b/c Denison works in the industry. (I assume that Armitage signed a release years and years ago, but even if not, since Denison has his own entertainment company now, if he were going to move in the direction of distribution he’d have to have that managed or risk the reputation of his future endeavors). I was somewhat worried about the distribution issue, but there’s no point in discussing my reasons now because they haven’t been actuated. In the end, I bought it because I was curious, it was something I wasn’t going to get anywhere else, and $20 wasn’t enough to break me either way. I understand that it may have been different for others, but I give $20 to a beggar every now and then if I don’t have a smaller bill and I’m overdue for giving tzedakah. That may not always be the case but it was just now.

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  3. Thanks so much for the review! I am full of awe at your energy and devotion…I just might have to buy this, and I only own two RA DVD’s. It would make a nice book-end to the ones I have which are of a mature actor.

    I’m absolutely positive he could convincingly play a role in which he injures/rapes a woman. Rape is not about sex; it is about control and rage violence, which he successfully portrayed when he was beating up that tiny little textile worker as Thornton. His face was scary there; I would definitely fear for my safety with that face coming at me, especially as it is housed in such a huge body.

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    • yes, I know rape is not about sex. But it’s also a different emotion than the Thornton / Stevens incident. For one thing, the power differential in the typical rape is way more complex than that.

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      • Yes, it IS more complicated. And NS was how many years ago? And how much more refined are his performances now? Think of all of the “micro expressions”, as you so beautifully described, he has mastered. Still no doubt in my mind he could do this, and many more things besides.

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        • I’m just saying that I don’t buy that Thornton beating up Stevens is proof that Armitage had/has the chops to commit a rape on film. (And why, you ask, should I want him to? 🙂 I don’t, especially). I had other concerns in making that judgment. Pure slaughter is not quite the same as the commission of active torture and humiliation of others. Bateman in S9 comes closest to what I’m thinking of, I suppose, but it’s undercut with such an attempt to make us sympathize with the character that it’s a bit hard to interpret.

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  4. Enjoyed the review, thanks! Is it still possible to order this? I arrived late to the party and got the impression this was a very limited run and that you had to pre-order it…

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  5. Thanks for the lowdown on the film. I’m very interested in getting the movie now so that I can study his chest hair–oops! **cough** I mean study that natural acting style you were describing.

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  6. Now I really regreat that I haven’t bought it *sigh*
    Thanks for your opinion and the detailed description Servetus!

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  7. I regret of course…oh my, it’s early on my half of the world 😉

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  8. Thank you for the review. I didn’t buy it, but may think about changing my mind.

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    • Do keep in mind that it’s 10 minutes long. So it’s 10 enjoyable minutes, but …

      In short, I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone buying or not buying this — 🙂

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  9. Thanks for your analysis that I will read again when (IF) my dvd arrive here in this lost corner of the world 😦

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  10. Thanks for your review, Serv. I almost feel as if I have seen the short. With the few snippets, that we have seen as teasers, in mind, your post gives me a great insight into this piece of the early RA oevre.
    I am not quite sure whether I fully grasp your understanding of mannerist acting. I have never found RA artificial or discernibly *acting* in his roles, so I am wondering what you mean by him being different here. In a way, it seems almost contradictory to me that he is not mannerist but consistently (?) naturalist in this play, when the two acting styles might have helped to set apart Darryl from the person Darryl is playing.
    Jeeeps, this is getting complicated. I am confused myself. Hope you are driving safe!

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    • I didn’t define “mannerist,” so fair enough. I’m not saying that I think he’s “indicating” (as the Stanislavski people used to say, I guess the term’s gone out of fashion) in his early roles, but I also never would have called Armitage a primarily naturalistic actor. He definitely has a recognizable style and that style is not really visible here.

      *If* he was trying to differentiate between Darryl the actor and the character played by Darryl the actor, the difference is pretty subtle. I am going to have to watch it a few more times, I imagine. For one thing, I’m really not always sure when they’re switching between play and relationship.

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  11. I watched STAGED only once so far, but I loved it, imperfections and all. It was well worth the wait.

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  12. I ordered it in the mood that I was not sure if I ever would really watch it and pry into RA’s past or just put it on the RA-shelf unseen. But I at least wanted to have the option to watch it, so I mangled my food budget and ordered it. I am still not sure if I will be able to assemble the bravery to watch it when my DVD arrives. (Did not get it yet.)
    Your review certainly is something to get me closer to the point to want to see it now, as when seeing the theatre excerpts of his Shakespeare works, I always wonder why he so consistently mentions wanting to go back to theatre work.

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    • I totally get this. I’m wrangling with the “do I finally listen the rest of LoTN” question at the moment. The reasons are different obviously but I understand the reasons why one might not want to consume something …

      Armitage seems *really* comfortable here (acting here or there). Above all there’s no sense of stage fright or tenseness here at all.

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  13. Thank you for your review, Servetus. I haven’t bought the DVD so your description is very precious for me.

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  14. Your review is waaaaay more intelligently put than mine could ever be. Love all the points you raised and I wish that it would have been longer, if only to flesh out the characters and their dialogue a bit more. All the escalating anger here and there was a bit off-putting to me but I know it had something to do with the time allotted.

    I noticed that in the end credits, there are at least 3 more characters in addition to the director and the assistant whose scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

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    • Thanks — I still have to check that out. I did notice that the actors were doubling in crew roles in some cases.

      I think the emotional lumps would have made more sense if the film had been even a teensy bit longer, but the perspective changes from script to relationship also made them hard(er) to understand.

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  15. […] In my first series of viewings, my reaction was that I didn’t notice him trying to do an American accent; after more viewings I could see places that suggest that he was trying to do that part of the time (at the very least, when he’s playing Darryl playing the unnamed character in the play). If anyone’s interested, I will be willing to substantiate that assertion more fully (I assume that would be boring for most readers, but if you’d like me to do it, please leave a comment). […]

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  16. So you think the RSC was a mistake?
    I haven’t seen this yet and probably won’t until it shows up somewhere else — wasn’t really interested until I read your review.
    As usual, you give a very thoughtful and detailed analysis. Ever thought of a career as a movie critic?

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    • I don’t have enough data to say. But I think his style was markedly different after the RSC; in a year and half or whatever it was he never got a very large role; and on at least two occasions he expressed frustration with the experience in one way or other. I suspect that the RSC probably rubbed the edges off of occasional moments of overemotionality like the ones we see here, but beyond that it’s hard to say. I wish it were possible to see some of the performances of the late 1990s, esp. from the Birmingham Rep. OTOH, it’s possible that the RSC was an important resume builder — one of those things it’s valuable to say you’ve done ?

      thanks for the kind words.

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      • Isn’t the RSC a prerequisite for most British actors?
        BTW: Thoughts and prayers are with you — as always. Take care.

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        • Other people will know better than me — but I just looked and none of the following have RSC training: Cumberbatch, McFadyen, Hiddleston, Penry-Jones.

          Thanks for the thoughts / prayers. You take care, too.

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  17. Initially, the first two lines of the film completely confused me. It definitely should be watched multiple times to grasp the full extent of the story. Unsure why JTL’s character changed towards Darryl, and was it before or at the end of the film/ rehearsal scenes we see? Was there conflict resolution? Did she settle?

    Completely laughed at the crushed can scene. Bravo to Richard for maintaining a straight face.

    He resembles a “Darryl” here. Anything better than a “John”, right? 😉

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  18. […] after everyone else has, and after every other thought about it has been expressed. This matter has occasionally motivated me to make judgments before I’m entirely ready. This might make you stay more tuned […]

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  19. […] eye-lashes, mind you. If you would like to read other reviews by other bloggers, you can find them here, here and […]

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  20. […] to that of more experienced bloggers and Armitage watchers who posted their reviews.  [X] [XX], [XXX to cite a […]

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  21. so does he survive the film?

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  22. If anyone knows of someone who has an extra copy to sell woukd you please kindly advise? Thank you!

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  23. Looking to purchase a copy of Staged. Yes I’m late to this party. Had a terrible three past years. Thx!!

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  24. […] 2013. Armitage himself described this accent as “appalling.” My first impressions are here with an addition here about my perception of his wobbly accent-switching at the time — Darryl […]

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