Virile Armitage, or: richard armitage + samantha colley + anna madeley in The Crucible, part 2

Apologies that this took so long. Continued from here. It occurred to me after publishing that, that four years ago I wrote a longer analysis of Richard Armitage’s manipulation of Porter’s use of signs of desire and status (mixed with evidence of his shame) as a way of establishing masculinity here, and that this post partially underlines my point about the role of desire as opposed to generativity / reproductive capacity as a distinction in different sorts of masculinities.

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Screen shot 2014-09-04 at 12.25.54 AM[Left: John Proctor (Richard Armitage) at his Act One entrance to The Crucible. Source: API]

I may be one of approximately a dozen women left in the industrialized West who thought it was really sexy when John Proctor stated that he was going to drag his lumber out of the woods. Moving wood is an action with the generative connotations of virility (building, transforming, storing up), though a statement may not immediately foster desire in contemporary terms. (Though, if you want evidence that it can still work for today’s viewer, watch the barn raising scene in Witness.) I argued last time that Richard Armitage’s John Proctor is primarily virile (as distinguished from the larger category of “masculine”). He displays that virility through particular masculine signs (boots, coat, beard) but also through the way he uses them — to exert and exchange power. And power, in turn, draws people to him and repels them.

Previously, I considered how Armitage displayed and performed Proctor’s virility. Today I want to comment on the ways in which the virile vibe is (co-)produced with his fellow actors. It’s an important element of his performance to consider insofar as Abigail’s accusations directly challenge Proctor’s power and status — as she wants what Elizabeth has. Responding to that challenge, understanding how his desire for Abigail undermines his own rectitude and thus his virility, and how to navigate the world of the village after their affair — is Proctor’s central task in the work. And insofar as Armitage addresses these problems physically, Proctor’s sexual charisma and Armitage’s chemistry with Colley and Madeley constitute a component of the ways in which Armitage makes us understand how the plot resolves. Moreover, the contrast between the way his virility plays out with each woman sheds light on the moral level of the work (and potentially, anyway, on Armitage’s take on it).

In other words — I like to look at sexy Proctor, but Armitage’s attractions aren’t merely a drawing card for eye-greedy theater audiences. The way he inserts Proctor’s virility into the dynamic of a scene constitutes an important aspect of how we end up seeing the character and the outcome of the play.

Kinetic reaction: Power, desire, striving, and shame in Armitage’s chemistry with Samantha Colley (Abigail Williams)

[While Colley was interviewed in the leadup to The Crucible, she says nothing about her character’s relationship to John Proctor, and she concentrates on her admiration for Yael Farber. So in considering her performance, we can go on what she said to people at the stage door about the role, and what we saw on stage.]

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tumblr_n79tt8cmQH1rrvslco5_1280[Right: Richard Armitage and Samantha Colley in rehearsal for Act One of The Crucible. Photo by Johan Persson]

In retrospect, the choice of rehearsal photos of Proctor and Abigail together offered by the Old Vic Theatre in its advance publicity was interesting in its apparent sexual intensity. The photos draw strongly on conventional representations of mutual desire between Abigail and Proctor. Those aware that Proctor’s affair with Abigail is over by the time the play starts might have wondered where these images came from — insofar as they look like they could have been photos of love scenes. Even if she’s the active party in both of them, he certainly looks like he’s responding. I can’t imagine how these pictures wouldn’t have sold tickets — which was their purpose, along with providing images for the program. I remember seeing them and thinking that they’d decided to play Act One as if Proctor’s interest in Abigail was more current than implied by Miller’s script, with a lot of obvious attraction in tension with Proctor’s defense of his wife and repeated rejection of Abigail.

Screen shot 2014-09-21 at 7.25.59 PM[Left: Richard Armitage as Proctor in Act One of the Crucible. Source: Rex Photos]

Fascinatingly to me after seeing these photos, anyway, they played the scene with Proctor rather more distant from Abigail than Miller’s script suggests as the scene begins. This effect starts, of course, with the staging of Colley’s body as Abigail. In physical terms, Colley performed Abigail in way that seemed designed to stress her physical dissimilarities to Elizabeth. Threatening the other girls who had danced with her in the woods, Colley’s Abigail seems almost masculine in her energy as she challenges her mates to become co-conspirators, throws Betty Parris (Marama Corlett) across the room, and threatens then with violence. She is a boyish playground bully, revealing the deceptively explicit self-concept of the insecure adolescent who feels she’s undervalued, clothed in a sober women’s garb.

Though the rehearsal photos show her bare-armed, every inch of Abigail is covered on stage — and although Colley herself is diminutive, she plays Abigail as stocky, authoritative. The drab dress allows her to write her own temperament on every scene — prim where she wants to be, in Act Three, powerful in Act One. Miller’s stage directions propose that Proctor’s line to Abigail: “Ah, you’re wicked yet, aren’t ye’?” is to be delivered with a smile. Nothing of the sort. From the moment Armitage’s Proctor enters this scene, he’s angry, glaring down the girls with a glance and then watching them circle him to exit via the stairs with an expression of unbridled impatience. Indeed, the primary expression on Proctor’s face in much of Act One is an intense glower (as at left). His comment about Abigail’s wickedness is delivered with disgust and dismissal. Colley, similarly, backs off from Miller’s stage directions, with a more earnest rather than lascivious approach in all of the shows I saw except one, where Abigail was flirtier to start. This is an effective choice for that character, because in contrast to the almost-mad mood of her threats to the girls, Abigail’s sudden retreat to apparent normality makes us realize, perhaps before Proctor does, just how dangerous she is. As appropriate for his character, he comes to this realization a little later. At this point in the scene, Proctor communicates most clearly that he’s a man on a mission — trying to find out what’s up with the rumors of witchcraft, which he thinks of as nonsense associated with Parris.

Screen shot 2014-07-02 at 3.24.28 AM[Right: “I’m waiting for you every night!”: Richard Armitage as Proctor and Samantha Colley as Abigail in Act One of The Crucible. Source: Geraint Lewis Collection. ]

So the atmosphere between the two as their part of the scene begins is brewed with open anger on his part and a combination of entreaty and attempts to remind him of a past that he firmly rejects on hers. Her sexual allure isn’t immediately obvious until she pulls her headcovering off and the tangled mane of hair cascades over her shoulders and whirls around before settling against her back. Colley channels the raw physical energy she showed to the girls into a series of approaches toward Proctor that are less overtly sexual than they are persistently and implacably tactile, an approach that escalates as its failure to achieve its short-term ends becomes increasingly obvious. Even though (historically speaking) I am annoyed by the anachronistic psychological reading of witchcraft accusations that prevails in the popular mind, as a viewer I couldn’t help but be reminded of Yael Farber’s comments about juvenile sexual hysteria — and just so is the sort of clumsy clinginess with which Colley’s Abigail pursues Proctor — wanting affection and exploiting classically premodern male sexual triggers, like the hair covering, to try to get some acknowledgement of it.

Farber’s staging in the round eventually allows Armitage and Colley to trace a circuit all around the stage as they explore the nuances of this precarious tango. The way that Abigail rubs up against Proctor and provokes him even as she performs a sort of gradual running away from him when he eventually turns on her reminds me of nothing so much as the early modern meanings of the word “striving,” which were more toward “quarrel,” “fight,” “struggle,” as reflected in the text of the King James Bible. Striving: they start, stage left, in front of Betty’s bed, as Abigail begs for a “soft word” and Proctor insists it’s “done with,” as the base point of both the dance and the mood. She is aware of his desire, and so she becomes the prosecutor as he tries to avoid the encounter — Armitage’s body language suggests that he knows that his inability to resist, his desire, in masculine terms, undermines his virility and thus his power.

3870831fBecause Armitage’s speaking voice is (unnaturally) deep in this role, his voice gains in resonance as it rises in pitch when they begin to argue, his emotion moving him into his normal vocal range and making his words carry better and affect us more. The slightly higher pitch both reflects Armitage’s canonical distress tell as an actor and pulls him out of the deep pitch of his voice, highlighting the problems desire presents him for sustaining his virility into and drawing his apparent steadfastness question as his voice rises. As Abigail continues her entreaties, Proctor’s shame and anxiety about their contact wars with his insistence on maintaining his power to have ended their affair. “No, it’s done with,” and “put it out of mind” attempt to put paid on their account, but as Abigail refuses to accept his orders, his resistance becomes weaker. She approaches him with more and more offensive power until he’s propped up against the stairs where he entered, stage left, apparently decided to flee with his own decisiveness intact. He faces to the rear of the stage as, her preliminary attempts rebuffed, she loudly reminds him of his enjoyment in both their sexual attraction and in the act itself. Here, compellingly, listening to her account of his sexual responses, Proctor takes exactly the reverse of the position, both in physical and emotional terms, that he took in his entrance to the scene — but he recognizes himself in her words and so can’t quite force himself to leave as she hurls her accusation that he enjoyed their relations. The audience seated stage right can see at this point Armitage’s preliminary signal of Proctor’s shame — the wince of recognition (I didn’t see very closely this until the Friday I saw the play, when I sat stage right, so I haven’t written about it yet) — in response to an assertion he knows is true.

3870831bThe extent of Abigail’s tactility with Proctor at this point varies, depending on the energy that Colley’s projecting at Proctor — sometimes she relied more on her voice, but at least twice I saw her poke her fingers through a hole in the back of Proctor’s coat. So Proctor must turn back, for she’s opened the seal he placed on the jar of his conviction that he will stop the affair and he is forced to concede that his attraction was there. This mood then propels Abigail into her contention that Proctor loved her when Elizabeth put her out, and loves her still. “That’s a wild thing to say,” Proctor contends,” and Colley’s Abigail flies across the stage, jumping onto a chair, as he can only watch, stunned. She is able to monopolize his stillness one last time, as he reacts to her insistence that he’s looked up at her window, “burning in [his] loneliness.”

_75997169_crucibleGradually, as she presses her case, as she tells him of her dreams and he responds again with rejection that is every more clearly reflective — particularly in Armitage’s shoulders — of how much disgust he feels for his own weakness, he finally puts her off as a “child.” They stand at center stage together, front, when she begins to point out his weakness by raising the topic of his wife. This conversational move finally rouses Proctor to retake the offensive, for if he cannot be proud of his own behavior, he can at least take pride in his wife’s virtue.

article-0-1F5A364C00000578-661_306x528Gradually then — striving with him — Abigail chases him across to the rear of the stage, and their body language is intensely fraught, both threatening and sexual as she presses him, he argues with her, and when he takes the upper hand, she appears to be trying to get past him even as he presses. They twist their bodies along against each other. Each time Colley attacks and he responds, she’s essentially throwing herself at this mountain of a man — he never is at serious risk of harming here, but the point in the interaction seems to be her desperate need to touch, to climb, to cling, to persist, something that he has to shake off, at first with irritation, then with annoyance, and gradually with actual anger. As as both his rejection and anxiety in response to her growing touchiness increase, the physical energy of the scene escalates until she is almost attacking him and he responds, pinning her over a table with one of Reverend Parris’ books open.

Screen shot 2014-07-02 at 2.41.13 AMThen he releases her, and she attacks him again, almost like a tiger. When he shakes her off, she traps him up against a chair, stage left, almost where they started their dance — where this scene and interaction occur, and the shame that he has signaled a few moments earlier is now writ large as a forced recognition that all of the desire he felt for her is still there, his own moral reactions to it notwithstanding. Armitage thus delays revealing the remnants of Proctor’s lust for Abigail until she provokes him beyond his capacity to respond any further — revealing his shame, and thus converting the anger with which he starts the scene into full out rage.

The crowd downstairs begins singing (“A Mighty Fortress”) and Betty Parris begins to spasm and eyes turn then to the little girl — Proctor’s response to Abigail thus cut off in its full implications.

So what is to be said about Armitage’s chemistry as Proctor here, or his chemistry with Colley?

As so often in his characters, Armitage seems to be working to tell us Proctor’s story from a place of shame, and we have noted repeatedly in the past that humiliation is one of his most convincing modes. (Another reason that John Proctor was such a perfect choice of role for Armitage, for the status loss Proctor undergoes in this piece is extreme even as he claws against it at every step down the ladder.) We see very little indication of actual open lust from Proctor’s side at the beginning of this scene, and despite the ongoing discussion of the nature of his and Abigail’s desire in their dialogue, also relatively little indication of desire as a direct emotion in the acting itself. Much of what we as viewers learn about Proctor’s desire is signaled by Armitage in the form of Proctor’s outer reactions of rage and shame in response to his recognitions of past feelings of lust that Abigail’s words remind him are still present at least a bit. Put more succinctly but also with more jargon, in terms of facial expressions and dialogue, Armitage plays Proctor’s sexual desire as a meta-reaction rather than as a direct response to Abigail. The trademark Armitage smolder is not really present here in its unbridled form, because Proctor does not himself feel free to respond that way, but only as forced response and under the veil of other emotions — a strategy that in my opinion diverges from Miller’s stage directions but makes for a much tenser atmosphere between the two because we find our way half way through the encounter before Proctor can admit to his ambivalence or the conflict between his conviction and his responses. As we will see in Act Two, what Proctor “wants” is a rather complex question to answer. Proctor “wants” Abigail, but his desire is for the signs of his own virility and the persistence of the desire that Armitage signals so quietly undermines his capacity to express that virility.

That said, if the facial expressions tend to say, “no,” the physical reactions Armitage shows to Colley tell a very different story and work against (or with, depending on your view of what he was doing) the facial expressions to give the impression of a severely conflicted man. The blocking in this scene is simply superb, using the space in the round to full effect to give the viewer a series of impressions of their relationship from every possible perspective. Even as Proctor’s words say no, and his face sticks mostly to rejection, the way Armitage controls his body and the dance that he and Colley do tell a different story, of a powerful man who suddenly becomes unable to leave the scene, of a broadshouldered back that is not so impervious to the poking and tweaking of an imperious teenager who knows what she wants despite the age difference, of someone who no longer wishes to be polite but cannot physically escape his own feelings both of guilt and of attraction. He wants to reject her, thrust her away, and yet his body rubs up against her again and again as he responds to her clawing advances, even if only to push them away. Proctor’s eyes in the rehearsal photo are closed for shame, not for ecstasy. For her part, Colley’s huge eyes and large, expressive mouth serve her well. Her role, I think, is not as difficult to play as regards desire — she knows what she wants and she pursues it and we believe her. She plays it with the relative uncomplication of teenage desire (which may be part of why Armitage’s Proctor has such a hard time recognizing it for what it turns out to be: manipulation). She looks at him like he’s a meal to be eaten and she can’t wait. (The more difficult questions for Colley in playing this role, I would guess, circled around the extent of Abigail’s sanity vs her calculations — and it’s chilling to see her standing almost in the aisle, witnessing events while tears stream down her face.)

This part of the scene, in short, signals desire without reference to many of the overt signals of sexual desire. I appreciated this because there is a facile note to the book of this play that could make us tend to think that the conflict Proctor has to resolve lies between the lures of Abigail the sexpot (and Colley is seriously sexy, even in her grey dress — at times her sexuality seems greater precisely because it is bound underneath that cloak) and the status and morality connected with Elizabeth the good girl and that the choice Proctor is being asked to make is about virtue over pleasure (for instance). Choosing not to play Proctor’s desire so openly except at very limited moments makes the sexual energy in the scene run along the axes of shame and pursuit and so energy bubbles up at points where one least expects it, indeed, at moments of retreat and flight as much in moments of offensive aggression.

As an audience member, the tension between Proctor and Abigail was so high, and Proctor was so convincingly pushed against a wall when sitting in that chair that I found I was almost relieved when Betty started screaming — because it signaled a sort liberation, freeing Proctor not only from his feelings, but from his feelings about his feelings. This, I think, is what this staging of the play essentially suggests, and it’s something that we see in Armitage’s stance, particularly in his incredulous response to Abigail’s leap through the air — that Proctor’s attraction to Abigail lies in a sort of boundlessness or a freedom from the rules that he has set up for himself in constructing his life in this society. In witnessing all of those emotions, the audience is drawn into the net of tension that holds Proctor and Abigail together, where sexual energy is seen as a kind of potential for liberation that is alluring but oh so dangerous — and, in the end, not what Proctor’s virility rationally or morally seeks.

The scene crackles — precisely because Armitage signals Proctor’s refusal with such verbal and facial protest even as his body and the timbre of his voice tell us another story.

The contrast to Elizabeth could not be stronger — next episode, as this is now 3500 words.

~ by Servetus on November 3, 2014.

20 Responses to “Virile Armitage, or: richard armitage + samantha colley + anna madeley in The Crucible, part 2”

  1. I don’t know where else can I find such a detailed analysis of Richard’s acting (as well as the play itself). I admire your ability to describe what you see and feel and convey it to the reader. It was a wonderful morning reading (it’s a national holiday here), I even reread the post about Porter (love it!). Thank you! Waiting for the next part…

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  2. First- great analysis! Well worth the wait! I agree- John’s chemistry with Abigail is all the hotter for the elements of self-disgust, anger, and shame that Armitage displays. RA seems to excel at portraying conflicted characters. Some of the hottest moments in N&S, for me, were when John tells Margaret that his foolish passion is entirely over… in that moment, he’s completely conflicted, mind thoroughly disgusted, but heart and body unwilling to align with his mind… internal conflict definitely charges an atmosphere, which in turn ramps up sexual chemistry in the right context. I love when Armitage wrestles with himself. Lol

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  3. Another great dissection of the relationship of Proctor and Abigail. I thought she was very alluring and it took a great deal of self control for Proctor to reject her. Especially when we see how cold his wife is. She could “Freeze beer” – indeed. Abagail is sexual desire unleashed, and Proctor’s wife seems to be the opposite. Repressed, unresponsive and untouchable. Proctor has transgressed, but he is paying a heavy price in guilt and self disgust. I agree RA portrays conflicting emotions beautifully, attraction and repulsion, in equal measure.

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    • I definitely agree about Abigail — she is hot and Proctor has a hard time resisting. I’m not sure about Elizabeth … but that’s the next post so we can talk about it. I don’t think the problem she presents is so much coldness / frigidity as it is something about his social status and moral position … but more anon.

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  4. Well worth the wait. Thank you very much for this.
    Your analysis of the Abigail/Proctor “relationship” is so detailed, so complete that it’s almost as if I witnessed the play myself.

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  5. She’s ba-a-a-a-ck . . .

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  6. Oh my gosh, lot’s of reading here to do (and loving every minute of it). Skimmed through before work and re-read the ‘continued from here’ older post; now back from work and read the ‘what Samantha Colley said at the stage door’ link which finally illuminated what the empty shoes/boots at the beginning of the play were about (“and ashes are all that is left of the victims of past horrors, the actors are ready to be in their shoes for three hours and thirty, they are ready to give them back voice and life”)…and now I need to go over this “Virile Armitage…: post slower now that I have the evening free…this is hard work for me but so well worth it! Thanks as always for your analysis…they are very enjoyable as I have not yet seen the play….waiting patiently for the download.

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  7. Gripping analysis!

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  8. Thank you! The details you remember and then dissect for us amaze me. I will be coming back to reread this one more than once.

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  9. Just skimmed this the first time but will definitely go back and read it more thoroughly.

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  10. Thank you!

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  11. Thanks for another wonderful analysis Servetus I enjoyed it very much.

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  12. Thanks for all the kind comments!

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  13. There was so much Thorin and Thornton going on i had to save this for a more peaceful weekend. What with theatre nominations and such i catapulted myself all the way back in the middle of summer and Crucible again and this was the perfect read 🙂 I remember how shocking i found the whole act 1 interaction the very first time i saw it, the desire flaming in the air and his anger and refusal as hot as it. My mouth literally gaped open. I think he wishes he could blame it all on her ‘wickedness’ but knows deep down he can’t, nothing would have happened without his weakness. I was left wondering what could have happened had Betty not awoken… Not knowing the play the first time i saw it made this really incendiary. Especially as he went from this very current conflict it seemed to me at the time to the disdainful and proud farmer, it made for a very puzzling and complex picture of a man in that just 1 act. i really didn’t know if he would resist her or not and i think you described that wonderfully. It also made me think about what you said about the conflict almost between his desire in this case and virility, he seemed i guess most virile to me in the next scene, i his conflict about land and local politics, this is when i really got a sense of what Abigail saw in him beyond the pure physical strength, that (emphasis here) was the man she wanted (and i can see why 😉 ).

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  14. […] Here are posts where I discussed Armitage’s performance 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 […]

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