Proctor movens: Richard Armitage in motion in The Crucible

The photographs of Yael Farber’s staging of The Crucible that have emerged till now (as far as I know) omit any record of her own particular stamp on the production: The very emotive, dream-like scene changes, which are performed by the actors. I don’t have notes on what happens in all of them (because Proctor, interestingly, is not in any of them), but the opening of the play shows us Proctor, and sets the scene for how Armitage will move Proctor through the play — with a combination of tension and calculation. This extreme discipline gradually wears unsustainably on both the audience and the character, so that Proctor’s most memorable moments are often ones of physical explosion.

I wish I had more pictures. You’ll have to take words. Particularly Proctor in the opening scene — I wish you could see it.

The play opens with a chair for each character empty on the stage. Tituba (Sarah Niles) enters from the rear of the stage, carrying a large, smoking smudge pot, and proceeds to circumnavigate the stage with very heavy steps, setting up a rhythm for the steps of the other characters. These enter from four directions (not the cardinal points of the stage, but the four side entrances), and walk toward the chairs. I’ve been told that originally the characters put their shoes on at this point, but this step seems to have been eliminated. In the performances I saw, they proceed to their chairs, and gradually sit down. The light falls over the stage from the front, and all of them but Tituba, who’s still walking around the stage, eventually stopping at the front, raise their heads, simultaneously and look toward the light and in Tituba’s direction.

Proctor is the last to enter, from rear stage left, and he sits on a chair slightly off center stage, just across from the chair occupied by Abigail Williams. His posture is subdued, with his forearms propped on his thighs, hunched over, hands together and fingers intertwined. When the light comes over the assemblage he looks up toward it — and then, as the group turns away from it, first lets his glance fall almost demonstratively, and then his head follows his glance. Bit by bit the characters leave the stage. He is the last to go, now, crouched over his hands. He slides off the chair, then picks it up, and moves off the stage with it over his head, as if the chair is the burdens of the world that he’s carrying. His knees are slightly bent, crouching under the burden of the chair; he steps cautiously, not in struggle, but in wariness.

Particularly the drop in Proctor’s glance is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.

Screen shot 2014-09-04 at 12.25.54 AMArmitage’s Proctor is all energy, but it’s a curious effect. Not wasted or frivolous energy. At times he seem to burst against limitations — as when he climbs the stairs into Act One, bounding up, and discovers Mary Warren in the room. He’s angry to find her there, and his words are biting, and enough to propel her away, but the physical movement is more on the level of menace than anything else, and this mood repeats itself throughout the scene (as when Mr. Putnam asks him exactly which lumber he’s dragging away). The way, for instance, that he raises his chin and steps a few paces in Putnam’s direction, profiling his shoulders and the glare in his eyes, is truly threatening, menacing, and it exploits every inch of Proctor’s height and every erg Armitage projects, but it is not — hmmm. It is restrained, somehow, still, even if it is fragile, as Proctor’s stance is not always even. And that ties in to a number of Armitage’s other characters, particularly Thorin Oakenshield.

Screen shot 2014-06-29 at 2.14.28 PMBut all through The Crucible, as the production’s pictures suggested to us a while back, Armitage’s energy is also kinetic. His circular motion moves him around but it also ties him to the ground; he uses the space of the round to spiral around his own core, and we see this already in his interactions with Abigail. He is willing, especially in interactions with men, to stand on his legs using his body like a column, but more often, and especially with women, we see him tilting slightly 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 ways.

We see this most clearly when Proctor threatens Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) physically for not having done her chores at home. Through Act Two, the lines of Proctor’s movement energy have been mostly vertical (and sometimes horizontal) as he contests his wife. He moves around the stage, but his movements are up / down or else at a 90 degree angle, as he points to the table, or props himself on it, or points to the ground — and only occasionally gestures toward Elizabeth (Anna Madeley). But when he lets go of his anger at Mary Warren, and begins to chase her around the room with the whip, the energy again moves in a curve. What interested me was watching Armitage’s legs and feet as he negotiates this scene. I’ve often thought that he’s not so great at the crouching run — that, in essence, Porter is too tall to run very effectively through the bush, for example. But perhaps that relates to his stolidity, for Proctor, in comparison, as he grounds himself to chase Mary around the table, is tremendously light on his feet and much more physically daring, willing to twist himself around the table close to the ground, so that the stomps he makes during this move don’t ground him so much as project him into middle-level space. (I’m sorry, it’s probably hard to understand that unless you’ve see what I’m talking about.) He knocks over the chair as he twists around the table to get at here, creating this expression of extreme, rough violence even as he’s rather light on his fight throughout. What Proctor does there is a fully angry, no-holds-barred, but light on his feet dance in order to execute the chase. When Proctor stops as Mary Warren yells that she’s saved Elizabeth that day in court, he pulls himself back into the vertical position of power — but from both side perspectives we can see him clenching and unclenching his fist, as if he’s only barely managed to push the genie of his energy back into its bottle.

GGzbdiOAnd that clenching them becomes the prelude, the self-rocking-toward, the physical violence of the remainder of the scene. Here Armitage’s feet serve Proctor well, for there’s not a tremendous amount of space in the scene once Corey, Nurse, Cheever, the two officers of the court join him, Hale, and Elizabeth in the round. And at this point, Armitage overcomes his height somehow — he manages, as the violence of the scene progresses (he directs his wife to find Mary Warren; he has to ward off the officers of the court; once he lets Elizabeth go with him, he runs after her and has to be restrained, is thrown on the floor, and spit upon — and after he rises again and sits at the table and sobs, he begins a further, highly violent contratemps with Mary Warren that I wish I had a picture of — there’d be a whole article there on the topic of “how Armitage negotiates a physical fight with a woman”), to overcome or get past the issues with his height, moving ever closer to the ground as he gets angrier and angrier. (This will be important in Act Three, where he repeats this for rather unusual feat.)

And the physical altercation at the very end of Act Two with Mary Warren is again truly remarkable. (Photo above right with from toward the end of Act Three, but notice Armitage’s stance.) The original stage directions include the note that Proctor is supposed to grasp Mary as if he wishes to strangle her, but this staging allows Mary to (try to) defend herself. Honestly, if I were Natalie Gavin I’d be really afraid to play that scene with him, he is so frightening by that point, but he’s under perfect control, and seems to be struggling, so that when he utters the line “pretense is ripped away” it is not so much with bravado (not ripped aWAY, as I’d probably imagine it said), but rather RIPPED A-way, followed by a bit of a gasp, as if he’s truly struggling with her physically in the same way as he is with his own self-disgust by that point.

10478440_10151896380847185_7864155100396934998_nThe ability to get close to the ground is crucial for Armitage’s performance of Proctor in Act Three, because more than any other scene in the play, Act Three is governed by explicit and implicit status conflicts, as the triangle of energy between the court, the girls, and the farmers and the negotiation of power between Danforth, Proctor, and Abigail determine the physical postures of the actors. This is a hugely complex scene (at times, I found it cluttered, frankly, despite the very spare stage), and Proctor seems to be treading a sort of seesaw between the status of Act One, with his upright, straight, threatening posture (as in rehearsal photo at left, which comes from the beginning of Act Three, and in which he is still confident of the possibility of winning his case before the court) and the close to the ground running around that occurs after he realizes that his cause is lost (photo below).

Screen shot 2014-09-04 at 12.37.37 AMBecause at the point at which Proctor loses the most status — as he realizes he must accuse himself of adultery, and then, as the girls go wild with apparent demonic possession, and then, finally, as he himself breaks — he gets both more kinetic and closer to the ground. His lines about the hypocrisy of himself and Danforth, and the death of G-d, and the likelihood of everyone burning together — are all delivered from the position closest to the ground that we see him in the entire play. This is an interesting contradiction, in terms of our perception of power, and it’s akin to the kind of thing that appeals to Armitage conceptually. But it also gets to the way that Armitage plays Proctor’s explosiveness really all the way through Acts Two and Three — he makes Proctor explode by compressing his energy and making him smaller before letting all the rage out. This is a moving strategy from such a tall man.

Armitage’s height comes to the full fore in Act Four, in which he enters crouched, eventually is helped by Elizabeth to a chair, and then, as he counts the catalog of possible problems with a confession, gradually rises from the chair. Challenged at first by Danforth and Hale, he sticks with the crouch of Acts Two and Three, moving throughout on a relatively strict axis from the front to the back of the stage. But as the scene progresses, Proctor gains in height, and while his movement is still relatively restricted, we see him rising and rising. The kiss, in which he lifts Elizabeth above him, seems like a full regaining of his height and also of the stiller authority with which he began the play, even as he is tortured and damaged and we know he must die. He exits, walking backward, at most of his full height, and with very careful steps and outstretched hands.

~ by Servetus on September 4, 2014.

11 Responses to “Proctor movens: Richard Armitage in motion in The Crucible”

  1. Wow!.. Thank you, im actually crying at this point as I read this.
    I find myself unable for many reasons , obviously no tickets, to see his production.
    I adore Richard Armitage and have done for too many years. But to have seen him in this production would have been a pinnacle.
    I after reading your appraisal of this, know just how honoured those who have seen it really are.
    Again thank you.
    I live in hope.

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  2. I had Tom Jones singing in the background while I read this, odd combination. I read it so slowly, I didn’t want it to end. I re-read things, trying to imagine the scenes. His physicality always fascinates me…like when he picks up his jacket and turns around the counter to leave Elizabeta’s kitchen in one graceful move in Spooks….I can’t even imagine how his movements must be in this play try as hard as I might. Thank goodness you are writing to give us a taste.

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    • the comparison I would draw to Lucas is that Lucas moves so as not to be seen whereas Proctor moves in order to take up space.

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  3. I thank you so much for all of your posts on The Crucible! Your words bring it to life for me!

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  4. Riveting descriptions and analysis!

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  5. Thanks for the kind comments.

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  6. […] begins to disseminate jets of smoke or fog from the margins of the stage. The lights fall. The movement begins. Proctor (Armitage) is the last to enter, and my view of him is obstructed, and that’s a good […]

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  7. […] I see in the opening scene with the assembled cast and the moving chairs is an emphasis on the quality of the group as a whole congregation — the chairs call to mind […]

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  8. The way he exited the stage walking backckward at the very end reminded me so strongly of ballet and his dance training.

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    • I went to ITS one last time last night and I thought that, too, there are certain moments in that film that he addresses as if they are problems in dance execution — almost too grateful.

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