John Proctor (with Elizabeth) five ways, or: Richard Armitage changes it up

I was gratified to read that Richard Armitage enjoys the beginning of Act Two of The Crucible — because Act Two was my favorite part of the play in Yael Farber’s production, and it’s clear from the intensity and emotion that come through in this scene that Armitage (and, I assume, Anna Madeley) felt some special connection to it. The recollection we have of the conversation refers to Armitage’s mention of the couple working out their fractured relationship, which I think is exactly what we see here — different modes of working it out. I found myself thinking, the third night — I see how this works. You decide the mood your character is in, and then he walks into the house and encounters this other character in her own mood — and then you figure out what happens when you encounter each other. Below five subtly different ways the scene played out during the week that I watched it — revealing the deftness of the work these actors do and the sheer amount of thought that they seem to have put into preparing for these roles — as excerpted from the notes I took down at the interval of each show.

Quick reminder: Act Two takes place in the Proctors’ house. Proctor comes in from a day sewing his crops, to encounter a suspicious Elizabeth. He tells her he’s finished seeding the farm, and she serves him his supper. He suggests that he wants to buy her a heifer to please her, and she’s resistant; he suggests she bring flowers into the house, and she’s hesitant; he kisses her and she’s unenthusiastic; and he suggests that on Sunday they walk out and see the flowers on the farm. Finally it comes out — she’s worried that his long day means that he’s made a trip to Salem (to see Abigail), which he denies — and the discord between them is revealed.

That Armitage likes that part of this scene — the quiet beginning of it — makes me love him even more. I know better than to conclude anything about him on the basis of it, but the empathy and gentility with which he plays it, even in its rougher variants, simply endear him to me more.

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10513369_10151927262662185_2309756786938503887_nElizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) tells her husband, John (Richard Armitage), that he will have to disavow Abigail straight, to her face, in Act Two of The Crucible. Photo by Johan Persson. Source: Old Vic Theatre on FB

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Tuesday, August 26th

[A little fuzzy, both because I was dumbfounded by the play the first time I saw it and by Richard Armitage and I’d gone for a drink with some fellow theatergoers, so didn’t write this until a bit later]

“After the fury and masculinity and pride of Act One, I can’t believe how tender, how impossibly gently, Armitage starts Proctor off in Act Two. When he removes his shirt my eyes explode for a second at Armitage’s physical beauty, but quickly he loses me in Proctor’s emotionality, the physicality of his washing, the scrubbing at the space between his shoulder blades, the crouch into the basin, the admission of fatigue. And then, how gently he starts off the scene with his wife. Proctor’s voice is in its tenor range now, the range that Armitage usually reserves for light anguish, and it’s so sad as he asks whether Elizabeth is well, so forcedly cheery, so wanting to get along, as he discusses the rabbit, so hopeful as he talks about the crops and his offer to buy George Jacobs’ heifer. “I mean to please you,” he says, “Elizabeth,” and the addition of the name is an entreaty — please, let me do something to please you. His kiss is tender and his hands so, so gentle on her arm — and when despair clouds his features as it is rebuffed, I want to sob in sympathy for him. But he tries again, hopefully, with references to flowers and a walk out onto the farm — and when he says, “I think you’re sad again,” Proctor’s voice cracks.”

Here, Armitage’s Proctor is as gentle and sweet as he can be — the man who asks about his sons, who loves his wife, who wants to please, adores the springtime. He wants not to lie about her cooking, he wants to bring the springtime into their house, he wants to try. In the first section of the scene, my heart breaks for the man whose love simply cannot be felt, but who keeps on trying nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 27th, matinée

“The dominant vibe of Proctor’s appearance here is fatigue. Farming (was) hard work — and Proctor’s greater physical exhaustion is marked in his slower trudge into the scene, the way you can see his shoulders ache as he removes his coat (how does he know that? Armitage’s detailed awareness of how different workers move and experience their bodies always flabbergasts me), the dejected way he moves around the room, and the loud, relieved gasping as he washes himself. His entreaties to Elizabeth now have to work their way through his greater fatigue, and they seem both less energetic and more desperate. This feeling of emotional sinking steers them much harder towards the emotional collision of her suspicion that he’s in Salem and the anger of the subsequent part of the scene appears more quickly. Well, tired people are more likely to fight and fight harder — something we see here in spades.”

Wednesday, August 27th, evening

“This time, Proctor was angrier from the start, less careful with Elizabeth’s feelings in the beginning of the scene, so that his offers of appeasement seem at times passive aggressively combative, as if he offers them as a challenge rather than a propitiation. [Throughout this performance, Armitage seemed to be escalating moods more quickly than he had the previous two times, and this scene really demonstrates that well.] Her refusal of his kiss makes him almost explosive, and his request for cider’s not a plea as much as a demand. Because Armitage moves the scene faster toward the anger of their confrontation, however, he seems to get further — Proctor’s almost left his anger behind as he delivers the lines about how Elizabeth should not judge him anymore, and this part of the scene is much less angry and much more oddly insistent, with Proctor’s assertion coming not from defensiveness but from some sort of optimism. Elizabeth is also much more openly angry with Proctor than in the previous performances and his anger feeds off of hers.”

Thursday, August 28th

“The dominant feeling in Proctor’s entreaties at the beginning of Act Two is now neither hope, nor fatigue, nor anger — but fascinatingly: anguish. I thought this scene could not get more tearingly emotional than it was on Tuesday night, but Armitage has moved it an entirely different level. [This has something to do with how he played Act One, I think, in which his recognition about his attraction to Abigail was much more clearly visible than in the other performances.] He opens the scene and the attempts at pleasing or propitiating Elizabeth are pained and turn quickly defensive. The physical level of his desire for Elizabeth (again — does this have something to do with his reactions to Abigail in the previous scene? is this an attempt at over-compensation?) in his glance, his lips, and especially his hands, which seem more aggressive now, is particularly visible, and this in turn seems to make her angrier than she’s been so far. And her rejection runs all through his body this time — his stiffness is quick and full of rage.”

Friday, August 29th

“This is the edgiest, most intriguing read on Proctor yet: tonight it seems as if Proctor doesn’t really expect, or perhaps want, her forgiveness. He’s not as physically tired (as on Wednesday) as he is resigned and impatient. He’s not angry about the salt or disgusted as much as simply unable to accept that the situation is repeating itself yet again. But the physical posture of washing lands him in a position much closer to total collapse than any other night. The water runs all the way down his back and onto his buttocks. He puts the shirt back on much more slowly, and it’s his response to Elizabeth’s question about Salem that sets the tone for the next part of the scene. His attempts at conciliation are simply not as vivid as his impatience with her over Mary, and the practiced, forced bonhomie of his statement about the farm. This is a farmer husband who knows who this interaction is supposed to go, and on some level expects nothing different. he tries to push back through, but the fact of his impatience means the audience knows to laugh at his lies about the stew. Proctor’s not really hearing her protests, so Elizabeth gets much more sympathy from the audience than she has until now, even laughing at some of her lines for the first time since I’ve been here. Their combined delivery is quicker and angrier — and we see Proctor’s hand clenching much more noticeably throughout.”

~ by Servetus on September 3, 2014.

19 Responses to “John Proctor (with Elizabeth) five ways, or: Richard Armitage changes it up”

  1. Even more than I was hoping for!
    My daughter’s studying acting and I envy her future exploring the vagaries of the human soul.

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    • Something I wish I’d had more time to observe was the whole question of how different combinations of moods work — if they’re both angry, or one is angry and the other sad, for instance — in terms of execution.

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  2. Another wonderful glimpse into this play! Thank you! Going to read that part of the text again when I get a chance. This comparison of the different performances is fascinating.

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  3. Thank you for this.
    First, it seems that Madeley and Armitage have excellent chemistry. From your description, they seem to ‘feed off’ each other’s moods.
    Second, you describe very detailed the improvisations that stage actors make to accommodate and perhaps steer the performance in a certain direction, re: the living organism I mentioned in an earlier post.
    It would have been really interesting to read your perspective on how these different combinations of mood work in the play, and if they would have had any bearing/influence on the remaining play.

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    • I was thinking about the whole chemistry question and I am not sure how to answer it — it’s on my list of things to write about eventually if I and you guys don’t get sick of writing / reading about it. I would say, yes, they have good chemistry or perhaps it’s that whether or not they have chemistry in this scene you don’t much care. It’s more decisive in scene 4, I think, where she has to show her love (she doesn’t do much of that here).

      re: the combinations — I felt like I hadn’t scene the play enough times to make that judgment — the question only occurred to me on viewing #5. One thing that fascinated me was that while there was one performance that was noticeably lower energy than the others (Thursday), with the exception of Jack Ellis, no one had an off night, and that was one night. Otherwise they were all on, all the time — and I think when they are all concentrating so hard the combinations work out somehow, b/c they are all trying. I can imagine that there would be some combinations that would be more intriguing than others (Proctor hopeful, Elizabeth angry, for instance).

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  4. looking at the same scene, noticing the slight differences each time, makes me wonder how it feels to portray these characters every night. would it be like the movie “groundhog day”; living out the same exact set of circumstances every day, with only a small space to vary it? in some ways I imagine that’s gratifying, to be able to explore and experiment with the character but on the other hand there are some things that cannot be changed and that could feel frustrating, running up against those essential obstacles every night. I admire the actors/actresses, knowing they have to shake it off for a few hours to be their individual selves before “living” through it all again!

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  5. Awesome scenes story telling. I can’t stop reading it til the end. I love it, so details the scenes drew in my head clearly so i could see as if i was there watching the Crucible for real. Awesome

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  6. Thanks. This was a very interesting read. I have always wondered after seeing a play, musical or opera if they played it the same way night after night. Your details of each scene are wonderful. ^_^

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    • in a very general way, they do — for instance, in terms of the number of incidences of physical contact / struggle during Act One. But in terms of how those things go and where the actors exactly end up — no.

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  7. Thanks for all the nice comments — you guys make it rewarding to keep on writing!

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  8. Thank you,Servetus 🙂 …five ways..sigh

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  9. […] on his hips, as if he’s somewhat less steady on his feet, leaning on himself. In Act Two, despite Armitage’s frequent resort to Proctor’s fatigue, he builds on this trajectory, and energy begins to move out of Proctor in less orderly […]

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  10. […] of this fraught, impossible situation. His brutality with Abigail in Act One is contrasted with the extreme tenderness with which he plays the opening of Act Two on this evening. And his physicality — Armitage’s real strength as an actor, his ability to fit his […]

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  11. This is fascinating. Closest to a window into the process we will get… and again, so glad you were able to do this.

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  12. […] The dominant vibe of Proctor’s appearance here is fatigue. Farming (was) hard work — and Proctor…. […]

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  13. […] The dominant feeling in Proctor’s entreaties at the beginning of Act Two is now neither hope, nor …. […]

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