[spoilers!] Richard Armitage working; John Proctor topless

[Same warning on spoilers as previously. Don’t read this if you have yet to see the play.]

bbcbreakfastinterview-richardarmitagethecrucibleclip06-jul1414gratianalovelacecapJohn Proctor (Richard Armitage) washes his upper body at the beginning of Act Two of The Crucible. Source: Something About Love (A).

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Another much commented moment in Yael Farber’s production of The Crucible has been the “Armitage topless” scene near the beginning of Act Two. Indeed, it was the first piece of information about the production to break on the first night of previews. To me, this piece of the play was one of the more evocative, if not the most evocative moment, of the entire piece.

Much has been said in reviews (both positive and negative) of the scene changes. They are moody, contemplative, atmospheric, rhythmic, symbolic, and set the background for the scenes they precede. Proctor’s shirt removal happens on the cusp between a scene change and the beginning of Act Two, and so in order to explain why it is so evocative and emotional, I need to say a bit about the transition.

This scene change begins with the cast carrying in the implements of a colonial house. The house is shadowy and mostly dark. Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) brings in a large basin and a ewer of water, and pours the water into the ewer; other cast members bring in a table and chairs and a dish with rising bread dough, a small brazier that stands in for the house’s hearth, and a table with cooking implements, a lamp, and a pot that will be the Proctors’ dinner. As the change opens, Elizabeth moves from the water, which is placed directly at the front of the stage, to the table, where she kneads the dough for a time. Then she moves to the side table, and uses a long wick to transfer the light in the lamp to start the brazier. Finally, she tastes the stew in the pot before moving off stage, where we hear her humming (what is presumably a lullaby for her sons). This piece of the change I will discuss more fully when I talk about Madeley’s performance, because it is the first chance we have to grasp her characterization.

At this point, Proctor enters from the rear of the stage, carrying a lamp before him in his left hand, a rifle (tja) in his right, and a whip in his pocket. He goes to the table, sets down the lamp, unloads the rifle, and then takes the whip out of his pocket. Just at the point at which he’s about to set it on the table, he hears his wife humming from off-stage, and that awareness affects his posture. He takes off his jacket and scarf, and moves toward the kitchen implements. First, he seems to warm his hands briefly over the fire; then, he moves to the side table and tastes the stew and corrects the seasoning (I wrote about that moment in the script here), and then moves to the basin of water.

The lights rise, and Proctor removes his (tunic) shirt, pulling it off from the shoulders, and thus naked from the waist up, kneels to the floor to wash himself. It’s so simple, and a nearly perfect moment.

Now: I’m not saying that no one responds to this in terms of its most obvious valence (beefcake Armitage) and I am sure that this is one aspect of the effect the director wanted to achieve — because boy, do you find yourself watching what he’s doing intently. Indeed, once this piece of the production was known, fans exchanged notes on which seats are best from which to view the spectacle (F15 stalls is the closest). One thing that’s interesting is that despite fan awareness that this will happen, big segments of the audience are clearly not expecting it, and Armitage pulls his top off so quickly and smoothly that you can feel a sudden group inhale on that side of the theater if you’re sitting close enough. So the disrobing certainly has the effect of provoking our appreciation of the nude male figure with the usual concomitant responses of the involuntary nervous system.

I sat in the F 18 or 19 seat three times, so I saw this moment from very close range during those performances, and then twice more from a slightly greater distance, at twelve feet or so from the 90 degree perspective shifts on both sides (C8 and C19). The moment is gorgeous from any perspective, and we see different elements of Armitage’s body from any of them. In the front we see his upper chest most clearly, which is in good shape without being body-builderish, and his broad shoulders, along with a light but very masculine covering of hair. From this perspective, his waist is caved in as he bends to wash and you can see the incipient trail of body hair from his lower stomach very faintly. From the side, however, one sees the curve of his waist, which emphasizes the muscularity and strength of his shoulders and upper arms, and even more decisively, the viewer sees the movement of all of his back muscles. The profile view also underlines the powerfulness of his thighs and buttocks. In short, from every vantage point on Armitage’s body we see a combination of masculinity, power, and the harmonious working together of curves and muscles.

The question is, though, what do we see when he disrobes, and this is why the movement is so evocative. For Proctor is a farmer who’s worked all day and now wants to wash himself off before dinner. And Armitage goes at this with the muscular energy that comes with fatigue — he kneels before the basin, cups water in his hands and brings it up over his face, then over his head, dousing himself. He gasps all the while — as the water touches his face for the first time, as he leans into the basin, resting his right elbow and forearm on the bottom, and as he then splashes more water past his head and over his shoulders. (You see the water traveling down his back from the side perspectives as well.) He scrubs at his shoulders and his upper arms and particularly at his back and the space between his shoulder blades with a will — to eradicate dirt, to get rid of sweat and, one feels, to displace a certain amount of anger or frustration.

For there’s a tension in Proctor foreshadowed by his washing — a tight emotion that spans the axis between anger, exhaustion, frustration, and determination. Eventually, he stops washing and leans into the basin, resting on his forearm, his head close the water — and he gasps out again a sort of resignation. At that point, we hear Elizabeth asking why Proctor is so late, and as he turns to answer, grabbing a rough towel from a chair behind him and drying off his chest, the scene begins. As it moves on, Proctor puts his shirt back on and goes to the dinner table.

Armitage uses the washing here to make Proctor into the rough, determined character he is — setting up the tension of a man who is proud of his work and proud that he can make his body do his his will and who will do anything for the wife he has wronged, even as she is unable to accept his labor in place of the feelings she demands. Seeing Proctor naked, washing himself, then, lets us see the farmer stripped down to his essential acts and emotions. We love Armitage’s body, but even more we’re drawn into the emotional life of Proctor who sees himself as simple and hardworking and yet, no matter how much he exerts himself and how completely he tries to wash away the grime of the day, can’t seem to do quite enough to please her. His energetic scrubbing will never fully remove his sins, and the gasp at the end is one not only of physical exhaustion, but also of resignation in the face of dirt that will never go away.

~ by Servetus on September 1, 2014.

25 Responses to “[spoilers!] Richard Armitage working; John Proctor topless”

  1. Sigh…I don’t have a chance to see the play myself and now I’m watching it through your eyes…It’s so vivid and tense! Thank you and I’m looking forward for more and more.

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    • Mmmmm, lovely. Me too. You know what we want.

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    • I agree. I caught myself holding my breath reading this passage. Note to self…..BREATHE! I can’t imagine what it was watching this emotional scene. I’ve thought from the beginning that there must be so much angst in this scene.

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  2. Thanks for your really detailed description and insight. I was wondering what goal Yael Farber wanted to reach with that topless scene and so was I about the shouting. Well I crossed the Channel and sat to get my answers… Plenty of emotions, some funny bits, brilliant acting and actors performing as in a ballet. And when the voices grow in volume, it is so much part of the escalating and gripping emotions the extract could not render BUT (argh) no shirt removal!!! I can’t have miss it, can I? No frustration, or OK maybe just a little… Now I suppose it was an audio-description performance and this scene proved difficult to be described. Just a guess! (it could have been you such your description is great). But now I wonder: are there any other scenes that were shortened? I’ll never know.

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    • Welcome, and thanks for the comment. I think I’ve seen two tweets on different days that suggest that he didn’t (on those nights) pull off the shirt. (I don’t know why, but my guess would be that he wasn’t feeling it as part of the character on those nights. The first half of this scene gets played in pretty subtly different ways, as far as I saw).

      From previews, it sounds as if big chunks have been shortened / changed. For instance, I was told that in previews at the very beginning, the characters all put their shoes on, on the stage. Also, I was told, the scene change to Act Four was very different — now they have the girls walking across the stage, which wasn’t there before … Danforth and Hathorne’s costumes have changed in Act Four. These are only some things I’ve heard.

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      • Hi Servetus, Thanks for your comment. I guess this is why it is so much better to go and see live plays. The actors’ different moods and feelings, and their interactions with the audience create a somehow unique atmosphere and show. These changes mean that this is not just mere mechanical acting but loaded with emotions delivered at every level. It puts everyone in the audience and on stage in a giving/receiving relationship. I haven’t thought about it that way. We have an ad for mineral water in France where the public have to pedal to make the man remove his shirt and, and… We did not fast pedal fast enough on that night…

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    • Hi Marielle, I saw the play on August 12 (with shirt removal) and on August 14 (without shirt removal). August 14 was an audio-description performance. Maybe you were there on the same day? He just rolled up the sleeves of his shirt before washing. On that day I had the better seat (1st row, Dress circle), so I was a little frustrated, I must admit…

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      • Hi Livia, Same day, same row. The reverse for you would have been perfect to grade your emotion up! I’m only joking, the play in itself shirt or no shirt was already breathtaking. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Well said, as always. I felt like I could see every bit of the scene clearly in my head, reading this. Really lovely. And I’m so glad you got to see the show. Can’t wait to read more about your experience.

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  4. It feels great to refresh my memory by reading your wonderfully detailed post about the scene! I had seat F15 when I saw the play the second time. It certainly was the closest!!
    I really appreciate your ability to observe it all in such detail. I was way too overwhelmed to do anything like that. I was just watching him and trying to breathe and not to bust.
    And yes, I had trouble breathing while reading this post, too!

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    • Thanks. I’m a bit of a trained observer, but I also gave myself two shows where I did nothing of that sort of thing. Still I had the luxury to see it repeatedly and that helps.

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  5. Loved reading your detailed description of the cleansing scene! The symbolism in the scene is quite powerful! And thanks also for sharing the promo vid cap I made. Cheers! ;->

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  6. Thank you for writing about this scene – it helps me re-live it again. As for Proctor’s reaction to his wife’s question, I felt he reacted as if she startled him with her entrance, even though he definitely knew she was at home and could expect her to enter at any time. Perhaps it was the question, or maybe he didn’t feel he was clean enough yet, as you say. Now to the washing as such: I saw four shows and during the first one he didn’t take off his shirt, during the second I sat in F18 (very good view indeed), then there was G15 (second row but straight opposite and the peson in front of me didn’t block my view). But unexpectedly, the angle that startled me most was from the seat where the stage used to be, H40. It really was a different show, as you pointed out, and I saw so much that I didn’t see and couldn’t have seen from the seats in the original stalls. Among these things was Mr. Armitage’s back and what he does with it: the waist is curving in and down following the hips, the shoulders are going up. A very graceful and, ahem, suggestive movement.

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    • Yeah — he knows she’s around, but he seems a little surprised. I think my reading of this is affected by the fact that I come from a family of farmers, so this is a moment of the day (in its modern version) that I am familiar with. One thing that sort of stunned me about Armitage’s performance is that he seems to know exactly how a farmer is tired (not just that he is). So I see physical fatigue as an important part of this scene. But he played it about five different ways during the performances I saw, so it’s important that we all record our impressions. So multi-facted.

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  7. Servetus, thank you for the detail you are describing for us. It is certainly the next best thing to being there. I look forward to reading and re-reading all of your posts about The Crucible.

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  8. Every time you post an account of your perception of the play, it’s as if I’m there…watching. So thank you for that. Many of the other followers have commented on this, and I’m equally thrilled. Thank you!

    A colleague of mine, who’s a trained actor, says that precisely these small adjustments that actors make from performance to performance are important. A play develops as it’s played, and sometimes certain staging or actions, if you like, don’t work well every night. It depends on what the other actors do or don’t do. So they’ll improvise as it goes along. A stage play thus becomes like a living organism (his words).
    He’s also said that this is the fun part of being a stage actor.

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    • I can imagine this would be a lot of fun. At about the third performance I saw of Act Two, I thought, this is just like real life. You work really hard all day and you walk into your kitchen and have no idea what mood your wife will be in and you just have to deal with it.

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  9. Looking forward to your detailed description of the interactions between Proctor and Elizabeth.

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  10. First, I want to say how happy I am for you that you were able to see this incredible production as many times as you did 🙂 due to health reasons I am not able to travel overseas or I would have driven my husband crazy until he took me 🙂

    So, I am seeing this play through your eyes …THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU 🙂 I have loved what you have written so far … I am so filled with emotion just reading your wonderfully detailed account. I’m really looking forward to the next installment.

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  11. Oh, boy! I just checked my seat for next Monday — F19! (I wasn’t at home when I first read this.) Sadly, I’m only going to be there once, so must make the most of it. Very excited.

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  12. […] what I euphemistically refer to as the cleansing scene. The description of the scene in which John Proctor, stands at his wash basin at the end of the day, washing off the day’s sweat and grime (Grati’s cap right), reminded me of the scenes of the coal miners doing so in the 1941 film How […]

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