Richard Armitage as John Proctor in Yael Farber’s The Crucible: Impressions of a character

[Spoilers as previous — don’t read this if you have tickets but haven’t seen the play yet.]

Woke up this morning with images of Richard Armitage and The Crucible in my brain and lay in bed a while, trying to figure out how to write about this. I think I’ve decided that rather that do a chronological progression right away, I will continue writing impressionistically as long as these pictures are so strong in my head. Eventually I will get the progressive journey aspect out, but I want to write the images down first, before they go away.

The Crucible,Theatre Photocall, The Old Vic Theatre, London,UKAs a re-invocation for the images, a section from Richard Hammarton’s amazing soundscape for The Crucible, here.

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[Right: John Proctor (Richard Armitage)’s first entrance in Act One of The Crucible, mounting the stairs to Betty Parris’ bedroom. Source: Geraint Lewis Collection]

The first night I saw The Crucible, at about ten minutes after John Proctor’s first entrance, I found myself seated approximately eighteen inches from Richard Armitage as Proctor began to argue with Reverend Parris and the Putnams about the necessity of Reverend Hale’s assistance with the girls’ troubles. He stood in full left profile to me, facing stage right, toward Parris. I was seated on a low bench, and Proctor stood proudly, angrily at Armitage’s full height, and in an imposing pair of boots that probably added another inch.

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 2.56.01 PM[Left: frivolous detail — the boots — best ones yet.]

And like lightning, the thought struck: “It will never get any better than this.” I want to write about that reaction now as it relates to my perception of Armitage’s performance as Proctor (and somewhat later, in terms of what it meant to me.)

[Below: A detail from another photo, not the moment I am thinking about, but roughly the same perspective. I was looking at him more or less from the sight line of his ear/ shoulder i.e., in full profile. Source: Geraint Lewis Collection]

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 1.47.28 PMArmitage’s Proctor is, by turns: hewed simply and roughly, powerfully menacing, unperformatively masculine, a solid presence without the need for self-declarative broadcast. He strides into the room and the air around him rearranges itself. He’s unsettling and unsettled. Calm and desperate, confident and hesitant when his confidence does not predict the world’s behavior, with a core of anger that is tempered by the deepest love and gentlest hands. He lives in the conviction that he can fix things — until he can’t, and the slow erosion of this confidence undermines him to the point of craziness.

When he ascends the stairs to see what’s happening to Betty Parris, Proctor commands the room, scaring all the girls there away and down the stairs. As their movements unfold around him, he turns his head in scorn. Abigail Williams makes her approach, and we see an attempt to maintain that command, faced now with the memory of the actions he’s ashamed of and confronting his angry decisiveness — Elizabeth is his wife. As Abby picks at his jacket and then throws herself at him, he brushes off her ever-more-insistent clutch with little difficulty. He stands with arms-closed-off authority in his exchanges over congregational matters; he steps forward with utter certainty over what is his property and stomps with resolution to drag away his lumber. His crossed arms signal skepticism, humor along with his cocked chin; they anchor him over his column-like trunk and shield the rawness of his emotions when his lips pull back over his biting refusal to accept that church should be about hell, or that he has something to hear from a pastor who’s all too grasping for his liking.

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 5.23.06 PM[Left: Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) tells her husband (Richard Armitage) that he has a faulty understanding of young girls. Source: Geraint Lewis Collection]

In Act Two, the mood shifts; Armitage stops projecting Proctor’s power outward and opens up its fault lines within him. It helps, somehow, that Armitage’s simultaneously large and so flat feet make him look even more vulnerable. The boots come off and the shirt, briefly, so that we see how his role as active farmer makes him bigger than Proctor at home; barefoot and fallen into status conflict with his wife, and then with Reverend Hale, Proctor shows his power and his personality most fully in his hands — where the holes in his defenses show through equally. Above all, his hands move us through the first two thirds of this scene — twisting around a very large pinch of salt, changing his grasp on the whip when he hears his wife, scrubbing frantically at his shoulders, caressing her in a kiss she is not willing to receive, proffering his support when he suggests that they go for a walk on their farm on the Sabbath, grasping at her — and vividly pointing out his anger. And yet Armitage’s Proctor is a man innately receptive to the details around him, commenting in wonder on the Massachusetts spring with a face illuminated not only by love and wonder but also by desire and gratitude.

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 5.45.29 PM[Right: Proctor (Richard Armitage) tears up the arrest warrant for his wife, in Act Two of The Crucible. Source: Geraint Lewis Collection]

If out in the world, Proctor masters all he sees, at home he is subject to his wife’s ongoing rage over his adulterous episode and his own blocked ability to make good a sincere desire to demonstrate his repentance and please her. If a heifer will not please her, can she be made happy again by the transport of flowers into the house? When the couple are visited by Hale, Proctor once again is pulled further down. The householder and farmer is suddenly startled into hospitality and misses the decisive detail in a catechismal question whose answer demonstrates the truth and upright simplicity of his religion. This is a second hugely evocative moment for Armitage’s Proctor: there are so many things he knows, and perceives, and controls about the world. And he does know his commandments — he can recite them, and his expression suggests he believes them to be right — and yet the sincerity of a simple religion flies smack in the face of a “fortress of theology” that must not be allowed to crumble. Defeated by this one detail, he nonetheless insists with anguish on his face that his be a Christian household and that there is no room for Satan in it.

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 5.58.37 PM[Left: Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) takes her leave of her husband (Richard Armitage). Source: Geraint Lewis Collection]

In the second half of Act Two, then, Proctor’s vulnerability combines with the powerful physicality he showed earlier when his family comes under assault. Previously, he’s threatened to whip Mary Warren for her absence from work, showing that the power is still there, but it as the authorities arrive to arrest his wife on suspicion of witchcraft, Proctor becomes explosive. Menace returned, he stands in the way of Cheever, the bailiff; he sends his wife off to fetch Mary to explain the poppet on their table and the needle in it — and then in a moment of truly terrifying rage, his hands become muscular and violent, when he tears up the warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest and casts it in Cheever’s face. But they return to gentleness and entreaty when Elizabeth agrees to go with the officers of the court, and here we see them in so many modes we are dumbfounded — anger, promise, entreaty, guarantee. The defining gestural language of Proctor as Armitage creates it here — and which looks like it will be captured for posterity only on photos and in our memories — is vested in his hands (and perhaps, to a lesser degree) in his stance. He fights again, as Elizabeth is taken away — but the commanding physicality crumbles — as Proctor folds in on himself — and then becomes a wild, frenzied, desperate dance with Mary Warren, as he insists that she give evidence before the course. When he exits the stage like a dead man walking into eternity, Proctor’s physicality gives us at the same time the omen of a coming cataclysm and a picture of utter, shaky, convicted despair.

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 6.32.28 PM[Right: Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) accuses Proctor (Richard Armitage) of sending out his spirit to bewitch her, in Act Three of The Crucible. Source: Geraint Lewis Collection]

In Act Three, as Proctor appears before the court to plead his wife’s case, both his physical and his emotional confidence are shaken and his once firm stance, so clear in Act One, now seems the outcome of bravado rather than the natural representation of inward confidence. Act Three is the most physical part of the play for all of the actors, and here the round staging puts Armitage at his most balletic, so that Proctor’s stance seems the most unstable it’s been as he encounters the rapid movements and spasms of the bewitched girls. It begins with a position of deference toward the court and defensive protectiveness toward Francis Nurse and Giles Corey, the neighbors he accompanies whose wives are also both accused. For much of the scene, Proctor glowers, his proud profile now slightly diminished as he looks simultaneously more prosecutorial and more cautious about what will happen. His shoulders are held more defensively and he bows his head more fully. The growing humiliation of a situation in which he cannot obtain redress without fully exposing himself — and his realization that even that will not get him out of the trip — combine in a rage that can scarcely be contained, with Proctor’s explosion at the end that he sees Satan in his own face and that of others around him granting us all a huge relief of tension that’s been building for forty minutes. Much mention has been made among skeptics of the unbelievable amount of shouting in this play, and these critics are not wrong. All of the characters shout and scream, and Armitage’s Proctor leads them all. But on some level, Proctor’s shouting reflects the inchoate fury of the powerless man who can do nothing but shout — as one reviewer has said, the man who shouts because he cannot be heard. Proctor’s hands, once caressing, once beseeching, now point, exhort, clench against powerlessness — and most of all: indict.

Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 6.49.52 PM[Left: Proctor (Richard Armitage) at the end of Act Three — proclaiming the fraud that everyone knows or suspects is happening. Source: Geraint Lewis Collection]

When Proctor appears in Act Four, he is physically broken but still emotionally intact. The halting, limping posture of a prisoner whose hands and feet are covered in blood and whose chest is made up so that his pectoral muscles now look flaccid, indeed almost concave, conveys the physical resignation of a man who still grapples with important questions — who wants, physically and emotionally, his wife — and even more his life, although he remains at a loss as to how best to care for his children: by confessing and thus taking care of their bodies, or by dying in order to demonstrate his virtue. To me, this is the part of the play that suffers most from the philosophical muddle Miller creates around the problem of integrity and works least well in Farber’s generally breath-taking staging, but Armitage’s Proctor uses the tricks that he’s used all along to show us how the combined vulnerability and rage of a man whose love for the world and his family nonetheless will not let him be pushed into the lie of a confession. If the script does not always make his motivation clear, Proctor’s body does at all times — racked with pain, weak, stumbling — and yet explosive to the core, the damaged pride of a wounded righteousness that landed him here rising up, almost like a rattlesnake, to contest and then verbally defeat his accusers. The slow tearing up of the lied confession leads us not to anger but to peace — here is the first marvel, Proctor tells us. Finally, he can stand. Finally, he can feel himself loved by his wife and with a strength of moral purpose equal to hers. Finally, he can lift her and take her kiss — and finally, he can step away from her though he wishes nothing more than to stay.

~ by Servetus on September 2, 2014.

10 Responses to “Richard Armitage as John Proctor in Yael Farber’s The Crucible: Impressions of a character”

  1. That was wonderfully written, evoking all the contradictions and power of his evolving feelings. I look forward to all of your posts on this!

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  2. Your words take my breath away……………thank you.

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  3. Thank you for writing and sharing your impressions. These are the details that I so wanted to experience for myself, though a trip to London was not possible for me this summer. I almost want to take your account and look at it side by side with the text of the play, which I re-read earlier this summer.

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  4. Again……thanks! I’ve flagged this for future reference. I’m so glad you and others are willing to share your experience with those of us who have missed this opportunity.

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  5. As always great review. Makes it all come back again and brings to mind details I missed. How I wished I could see it again, Saw it three times and it is not enough.

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  6. There’s nothing I can say to this…I read it and it conjures up such images I am lost for words.

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  7. […] from Act Two of The Crucible, but I like this picture a lot and it substantiates my point about use of hands being Armitage's iconic characterization gesture for Proctor. Source: Rex […]

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  8. […] his first serious leading role in live theater since his student days. For those who witnessed it, Armitage’s Proctor — ephemeral as it was, even with a preservation of important aspects of it on video — […]

    Like

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