Richard Armitage + microexpressions in The Crucible

3972870nRichard Armitage as John Proctor in The Crucible. This is a still from Act One, and I’m talking about Act Three (when Proctor has taken his scarf off), but the physical posture and especially the attitude of his head is roughly comparable to what I’m discussing. Source: Rex Images


One of the most incredible pleasures of watching Richard Armitage act involves observing different gradations of expression cross his face. Some of these visible and some are implicit — the implicit ones are barely visible to invisible, but these microexpressions are a feature of human expression to which we all respond in our daily interactions with others. Armitage is skilled at making a number of these expressions cross his face both quickly and noticeably, and those of us with the patience to stop action or watch frame by frame have been able to see them on our computer screens.

I’d wondered how this acting style would work in the theater — Armitage made an early career comment about the issue, suggesting that an actor puts more layers on in a theatrical role and takes them off on film or television. Yael Farber mentioned in one of her radio interviews in June that Armitage’s work with camera closeups meant that he’d had to adjust his style for the theater. And the consensus among those who’d seen the play suggested that most viewers are too far away to see that level of activity in his work.  I agree with this consensus on one level — four rows back, from the seat I sat in on my last night in London, his face simply looks different. And this may be one reason to be excited about the forthcoming Digital Theatre download; if made in a particular way, it may enhance the experience of observing Armitage’s mobile and emotive face not just for those who couldn’t see the play at all, but for audience members who sat further back in the theater as well.

Nonetheless, the microexpressions are still present in Armitage’s work in The Crucible, and I want to speculate on ways in which they work.

20[Left: Jack Ellis as Danforth in rehearsal for The Crucible.]

I’m thinking of a moment in Act Three. After Danforth (Jack Ellis) has heard Proctor’s self-accusation of adultery, and heard a denial from Abigail (Samantha Colley), he decides to question Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) about the matter. Proctor has asserted that Elizabeth put Abigail out of the house because Abigail was a harlot, and has further stated that Elizabeth cannot lie. If Elizabeth affirms this account, Danforth tells Abigail, G-d should have mercy on her –he will finally believe Mary Warren and Proctor’s story that the bewitchments are a fraud. He puts his questions to Elizabeth in the presence of both Abigail and Proctor, who are ordered to turn their backs to the questioning. In the scene, Danforth stands in the center front of the stage with his back to the audience, with Elizabeth facing him. Proctor and Samantha stand at the “edges” of the stage, facing in the same direction as Elizabeth; that is, toward the front of the stage. We thus see the faces of all three members of the triangle, and Proctor’s face in particular is easily visible both to the people on the right hand side of the stalls (F15-F20) and the side stalls (C5-10), particularly because Armitage turns it slightly as the moment progresses.

So imagine Proctor in the posture of the photo at the top of this post. Danforth begins to question Elizabeth, asking her whether she dismissed Abigail, and then why. Elizabeth is reluctant to explain, finally putting the blame on herself by saying that she had been sick after her last pregnancy and grew to think that her husband was “turning” from her and thus dismissed Abigail. All through this questioning, and then, as Danforth asks Elizabeth whether her suspicions were true, we see Proctor’s reactions to Elizabeth’s statements. In the end, Elizabeth denies that her husband was unfaithful, thus sealing her own and Proctor’s fate.

I was seated three times at F18 or F19 and twice at C8, so I had a lot of opportunity to observe Armitage very closely through this scene, and I was intrigued by his choices. To me, this would have been a moment for the extreme mobility of (say) John Standring’s face, which sometimes seems too much for the television screen (but which we can attribute to the relative emotional immaturity of that character). I would have guessed that in order to communicate his mood and his reactions to what Elizabeth says to Danforth, he would have to contort his features fairly strongly or perhaps even change his posture.

Armitage doesn’t do that, however. His head moves in a range of about 120 degrees as he listens to the interrogation, and his emotions as we can see them are vested in three places: his eyes, his shoulders, and his hands. (Strictly speaking, only his eyes count as microexpression capable, since we can see the explicit positions of his shoulders and the clenching of his hands.) Fascinatingly, those of us up close to him could see the sort of rapid eye moments that Armitage employed to such effect in Robin Hood, as below (sorry, I don’t feeling like cutting vid tonight):


rh206_173In a strangely sexually laden moment, the Sheriff (Keith Allen) gets Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) back on side after Guy’s urged Marian to escape, in Robin Hood 2.6. Source:


If you look at that scene in vid, what you’ll see is Guy’s eyes moving back and forth very rapidly and subtly across the Sheriff’s face as the Sheriff sells him on sticking with him and the Black Knights and coercing Marian into some kind of sexual slavery. I don’t know how Armitage does this (or if it’s even voluntary, the result of will or instead of an inner state he produces for himself), but it’s his classic series of “what do I do? what do I do? what do I do?” eye signals, and we see them here again in Proctor. What Armitage adds for Proctor in this strained situation: he keeps his eyes entirely open for a strikingly long length of time — one time when I watched him and took the time to count, I had blinked ten times normally before Armitage had blinked even once, and even when the reflex takes over, you see him struggling against it, so that it looks like he’s narrowing his eyes and struggling with his feelings. The effect of that is that you see his eyes appearing to tear — a combination of desperate calculation and impending sorrow.

On the Tuesday evening when I noticed him doing this and watched it up close for the first time, this mood started very slowly, so that the eyes were open and tearing before the eye motions started, and it was comparable in tempo at the Wednesday matinée; at the Wednesday evening performance, however, in which Armitage was cycling every emotion that Proctor experienced at a noticeably faster rate, the eye motions started first and immediately. During that performance (which I think was his best Act Three of all the shows I saw), he also added a much more physical component of fear of what might happen to Proctor’s stance, so that while in earlier performances he’d been clenching his hands and hunching his shoulders, on Wednesday evening, he almost seemed to be crumbling as Elizabeth uttered her lie on his behalf. In that performance, his responses to Danforth in general were much more acute and immediate, as well. In the earlier performances he seemed — guilty? — while the latter one there was a stronger tinge of anger and rage to his reactions. I think this is explicitly because the physical expression was greater in the the latter performance, but it raises the question of how to look guilty in a situation like that — how does the physical body display guilt, apart from the face?

So, interesting — but how many people could see it? I don’t know, frankly, and I don’t know why he made this particular choice — it was effective for me, in any case. But if we assume that the majority of the people in the theater could see little to none of what I saw — and that includes everyone in rear stage and seated at stage right, plus a large group of the people on the right side of the stalls and probably everyone in the upper circle — what is the point?

I concluded that there were two reasons for Armitage to continue this style of acting despite the low visibility. First: the more microexpressions I saw throughout the piece, the more intense his acting seemed to be. He didn’t have an off night in the shows I saw, but there was one notably lower energy performance (Thursday), and it was the one in which I saw the fewest microexpressions at work. I don’t know what is the cause and what the effect, but it seemed to me that one purpose of him doing all these things seemed to be to enhance his own emotionality and capacity to portray larger things by working on them from the stance of inner states reflected in his face (whether or not we saw the incipient moment of the emotion, we saw its effect). Second, it seemed to me (although this scene is not a good example of it, given that he faces away from the entire rest of the cast) that there was a possibility that the microexpressions were working on his fellow actors. Seen from side stage, Armitage’s face is lit quite differently, and I saw different things in it than I did from the front. It seemed to me that in situations where fellow actors could see his face lit differently, they also might respond to this sort of emotionality differently (assuming they were working interactively).

~ by Servetus on September 7, 2014.

10 Responses to “Richard Armitage + microexpressions in The Crucible”

  1. He was thinking: ” What is that woman doing to me!”

    That what I wonder, is it a conscious ‘ Now I have to move my eyes for this?’ Or getting that effect by inner dialogue?


  2. Fascinating post, Serv.


  3. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing your impressions.


  4. […] This, from the perspective facing Abigail, is what I was trying to describe here. […]


  5. […] see Armitage at the corner of the stage in the moment when Elizabeth is being questioned, and I am immensely moved by the very subtle reaction on his face as Elizabeth praises Proctor to […]


  6. …I CAN FOLLOW EVER WORD YOU “SAY”…!?!….;And I think THAT is why so-o-o many of us,(Audience, and FANS!) are absolutely Glued! to watching Him whether Screen or on Stage…!!…His work is Amazing and Wonder-filled..! Thanks for Terrific review..!!


  7. […] its summit in his portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield in the first two Hobbit films (2012-13). While those elements of his habitus persist, in Proctor, conditioned by the necessities of the stage, Armitage shifts his expressive energies […]


  8. […] of virility as John Proctor, and his chemistry with Samantha Colley. Oh, yeah, and I discussed his use of microexpressions in the play, too. Then there was this post about the significance of the staging in the round for what the viewer […]


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