Richard Armitage and the levels of tension, 1

The issue in Richard Armitage’s acting that I’ve written about most frequently is status or status games, of which I feel he is a master, perhaps followed by micro-expressions (which strictly speaking aren’t an acting issue, I think). But ever since we got this backstory for Richard Armitage’s drama school escapades in Regent’s Park, I’ve been wondering about the “seven levels of tension.” (I’d also been wondering about how he could possibly convince himself he was a tamarin monkey, but that’s probably material for a separate post. Well, just a picture or two for reference.)

Richard Armitage or tamarin monkey?

I bet this won’t be hard for you.

Richard Armitage, from the program for the RSC Hamlet (1998).

Richard Armitage, from the program for the RSC Hamlet (1998) — so just after finishing drama school.

Emperor tamarin (monkey).

Emperor tamarin (monkey).

What I decided to write about

After pausing to think about how best to organize this material, I didn’t really come to any conclusions, so I’ve decided on two themes. This post will be on the definition of tension and the role of tension in Armitage’s work generally, and another (one or more) will take us through how Armitage’s characters inhabit tension.


  • using a concept (“seven levels of tension”) to create or develop a character is a different thing from using it to teach someone how to do that, or from using it to look at what a character does. I’m really only using this as a tool in the final sense — to see what it shows me about what Richard Armitage is doing.
  • I read a lot of things about acting exercises or how to teach acting and they seem really vague. So what I wrote below is developed at a level of precision so hazy that some of it makes me uncomfortable. Like, I spent two hours reading about “Method acting” and I still can’t really give you a one line definition.


Jacques Lecoq

Jacques Lecoq

Tension in classical acting and physical theater

On the simplest level, tension is the state of being stretched, under stress, or under strain. Dramatic theory tells us that it can come from many places (task, relationship, mystery, surprise — each of which in turn has subcategories). It also can be felt and more importantly, visualized or communicated, in or via the body of the actor. Tension is one of the elements of a drama that makes us want to keep watching — the desire to find out what happens, to see how the story is resolved.

There’s diverse information in the theater world, it turns out, about the role of tension in drama. A little tension, one might say, about tension. Arf-arf.

The Method School is apparently troubled by physical tension in actors — seeing it as one of the main obstacles to successful performance. A physically tense actor is unable to explore or be playful, a mood at the heart of producing convincing, spontaneous acting that plumbs all the possibilities of a dramatic situation. On this view, physical tension in an artist might be seen as evidence of an inflexibility in viewing one’s character or some other kind of troubling insecurity that will prevent the actor from letting loose enough to perform truthfully. Tension should be at most momentary, then released again. Awareness of physical tension in performance (and the need to reduce it as much as possible) explain why the Alexander Technique (one of Richard Armitage’s tools) is a frequent matter of instruction in drama schools. From what I’ve read about Method, it seems to be more interested in the construction of character than in taking a standpoint on drama and its effects as a whole; theater is the construction of characters and their interaction with each other.

Practitioners of physical theater (Jacques Lecoq among them; you will remember this name because Richard Armitage said in the spring 2014 video interview above that he had at one time planned to study at the Lecoq school in Paris) are not in conflict about this issue per se, but at the same time they seem to be more interested in the role tension plays in the larger sense as the core of drama. As result, they have developed exercises that explore different mixes or gradations of tension and relaxation as a tool for discovering the tension inherent in a character’s state of mind or his response to a situation. Lecoq seems to have felt that the tension a character experiences in theater is greater than that of a person in normal life. For these practitioners, storytelling is more improvisational than script- or text-based, and the story and relationships emerge from the physical movements of the characters. Playfulness is important here, too, but the notion for this school seems to involve exploring tension (and probing the performer’s preconceived notions about it) rather than eliminating it.

_8884703My limited reading about them doesn’t suggest that these schools are meaningfully opposed to each other, and theater practitioners seem to be magpie-like in their approaches to putting together productions, picking and choosing as they please, but I do think there’s one key difference here. Method folks seem to think that the character emerges from things internal to the script and the actor’s ability to empathize or at least find parallels or commonalities with the character, whereas the physical theater folks are more friendly with the idea that an entire character (and even a story) could emerge from the movements s/he makes, that we could know everything necessary about them, indeed, develop a story simply based on movements (“devising”). So tension seems more important as an element of the performance to a physical actor than to a Method actor. There’s a Routledge Guide to Jacques Lecoq that I was able to browse on Google Books, and one of the repeated themes is that rather than defining a movement based on the script and then asking how to execute it physically (classical / Method), someone oriented toward physical theater would execute a motion and excavate the meaning from that. Although, in practice, as the historical programs of Simon McBurney’s company, Complicité, reveal, they also use scripts of well known plays. (They particularly like Brecht, it seems.)

tension-300x194Lecoq’s seven levels

The trick, I suppose, that would unite both these approaches, is to portray tension without oneself being tense.

Lecoq postulated seven levels of tension. I’m apologizing here that this list is an approximation drawn from a number of websites. This is really the first time in more than a year that I’ve regretted my lack of access to an academic library. And the more serious the website, the greater the caution of the author in saying that the adjectives used to describe the states are approximations, that one shouldn’t latch onto a description to characterize the state, because that can make one inflexible. So saying a state is “Californian” doesn’t mean that the performer should try to act as if he were Californian.

  1. Exhausted — “catatonic,” “jellyfish,” any movement or speech is a huge effort
  2. Relaxed — “chill,” “Californian”
  3. Neutral — “normal speed,” economic, “no back story” (nothing that is bring the character to the situation in itself)
  4. Alert — “curious,” “indecision” — the following is often cited as an example of Stage 4:
  5. Suspenseful — “doubtful,” “aware of danger,” “melodramatic,” “crisis about to happen,” “breathing in”
  6. Passionate — “operatic,” “energetic,” “bursting with movement”
  7. Tragic — “trembling with emotion,” “paralyzed/petrified,” “totally still”

I think it would be interesting to know more about the exercises used to produce these states; they are blocked out in the Google Books preview of Lecoq’s books in English. But even looking at the teacher’s guide from one of Lecoq’s most well-known successor or followers in the tradition, Simon McBurney’s Complicité, didn’t leave me a whole lot more informed about what students of physical theater actually do in acting classes. They explore tension points — where are their own bodies most tense? what is the least number of muscles one can use in order to experience tension, and so on — but in the many pages of “how to teach tension” that I looked at, most concentrated on imagining a situation or a stage of mind, but without more detailed instructions than that.

Richard Armitage and the seven levels

One thing I found interesting — most people are said to live their real lives at tension levels 1 through 4. This state of affairs contrasts to drama, which naturally includes the first four levels, but includes levels of 5 through 7 in amounts disproportionate to real life. Regularly employed actors may thus spend a serious amount of time inhabiting states of mind that most people who live sedate, quotidian lives experience much less frequently. Or, as I learned writing this, they may specialize in inhabiting one of them. Rowan Atkinson / Mr. Bean spends most of his time at 4 – Alert, whereas John Cleese’s roles often put him at 5 – Suspenseful. Probably the location of many serious roles at the high end of the spectrum make the frequently expressed wishes of fans that Richard Armitage “not get killed this time” futile. Armitage has played a seriously wide range of different roles, but aside from a few notable exceptions (Harry in Vicar of Dibley, Lee in Cold Feet, or Claude Monet in The Impressionists), when he’s playing an important role, for the vast majority of them, he chooses to inhabit the more tightly-wound range of the tension spectrum.

For the purposes of this analysis, I didn’t consider very small roles that primarily served plot as opposed to developing independent existences, or showed a narrower range of tension states, figuring that it only makes sense to think about how tense or relaxed a character is in the context of that role. But in thinking about how to think about Richard Armitage and tension, I realized that even if we look at the “low” tension levels, Armitage is relatively seldom there. This may have something to do with the needs of drama — in television and film, there are no random scenes, no casual observations of anything (so, for example, the frequent description of level 3 as “no backstory” is a bit hard to locate in most of the television Armitage has been in). If a scene is there in the first place, it’s because we’re supposed to be looking for that story.

So, for example, consider Stage One (“exhausted”). Often, when Armitage is portraying exhaustion, he’s actually coming off of one of the other states of tension. So, it’s difficult to think of Thorin’s periodic exhaustion in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies or Strike Back as representative of the near-incapacity to move. They seem more like closing phases of other stages of tension than representative of a stage in itself. If I understand correctly what is meant by this description, the places where Armitage might come closest to this (difficult to move or speak) are post-coital scenes, like this one from Spooks 8.4:

To some extent, these more relaxed states are easier to observe when Armitage is playing less serious roles.

But even then, he’s not really often casually in a scene, even when we could be, as seems clear from this example of stage 2 — Relaxed. If we consider Lee’s encounter with Pete (Sean Pertwee) in Cold Feet, for instance, it starts calmly:

and it could have stayed that way, but the boys start playing status games (note to self: examine further the relationship of status to tension at some point), and interestingly, it’s Lee (Armitage) who gets tense here.

This has something to do with the issues of the script (Pete is starting to believe that Jo only married him for a residence permit, and so his low self-esteem may in fact be provoking a high status assertion from Lee).

There’s a similar issue in Moving On. John Mulligan’s apparent relaxation when he comes with fish and chips to Ellie’s house …


… while he’s drinking … (Richard Armitage as John Mulligan in Moving On; source:

… is belied by his wolfishiness in a previous scene. We know that the relaxed John Mulligan …

is really this manipulative guy. The relaxation is merely a mask. He won’t be really relaxed until he’s post-coitally asleep:


and even then he’s asserting power.

The easiest place to look at how Richard Armitage does stage 3 — neutral / no back story — is to look at Harry in Vicar of Dibley, maybe because he is the most “normal” of all of the characters Richard Armitage has played (although he is also in my opinion the least realistic). Here’s the main point in the piece where we see him with no story or motive for being there:

It’s a bit hard to consider Harry at all in the light of stages of tension — not because there is no tension in comedy — but because it is used so programmatically; things can be funny precisely because the tension is ironic (a paradigmatic illustration of this situation for me is the scene in Love Actually where Rowan Atkinson is packing the Christmas present while Alan Rickman waits impatiently). It’s not that these strongly troped genres don’t have tension; but for instance, although Guy of Gisborne is often tense, his tension plays with a series of generic conventions just as much as it comes out of the character himself.

For example, this scene from Vicar of Dibley — where Harry certainly seems to be in stage 3 — illustrates the way that tension is funny for a reason that is somewhat opposed to the literal text. Harry is actually relaxed, but the tension comes from Geraldine and her rush to run into her crush again “accidentally.”

It’s funny in part because nothing about the scene is truly accidental; Geraldine is there on purpose and pretending to be relaxed while Harry who happens to be there suggests through his tone and speech that he knows this. Both of them are exaggeratedly “casual” here.

One thing that did strike me about that scene, though, is that there’s a certain tension often present because it seems inherent in Armitage’s posture — especially his shoulders and neck — that was exacerbated in the scenes with French, who is so much shorter. His walk with her is less relaxed than his stroll with Keeley Hawes, playing his sister, in the same episode.

The difficulty of finding these relaxed scenes, though, gets to the crux of the matter for me, though — that it’s really rare to find a scene where Armitage is not located at least at level 4. Indeed, this is something that fans often praise in his acting — even in scenes where he does nothing, his characters are always potentially “interested.”

Epiphanes (Richard Armitage) does nothing in this scene, but he's definitely an active observer. Source:

Epiphanes (Richard Armitage) does nothing in this scene, but he’s definitely an active observer. Source:

There are even fans who assert that they noticed him in this film and have been fans since then. I’ve always been skeptical of that claim, but it does underline the fact that Armitage’s attention to what’s happening around him in any scene is often obtrusive.

To me, this gets to to the crux of the matter: in my opinion, Richard Armitage spends much of his scene time, even casual time, at level 4 — Alert. Indeed, I often see editors taking advantage of this in editing — he’s so intently looking from face to face of his fellow characters that it makes sense to edit his face in as a piece of continuity. On both Spooks and Strike Back, he’d get a second or two of screen time even when he said nothing because he was observing the interactions between other characters.

You might be interpreting me to be saying he’s stealing scenes here or drawing attention to himself when he shouldn’t be; that’s not what I am asserting. His behavior is always entirely appropriate — but there’s an inherent base alertness there in scenes that cannot be denied, and which made the search for the low levels of tension in these scenes much harder than I would have anticipated. Just Armitage is often tense precisely when he’s exhausted, he’s also permanently alert in places where other people (humans, anyway; I’m not sure about actors) might be a few levels down the chart.

So. Hopefully I will find the energy to draw my attention away from the political scene because I want to examine the implications of this hypothesis more fully in a bit.

~ by Servetus on February 15, 2017.

15 Responses to “Richard Armitage and the levels of tension, 1”

  1. I think it would be hard to play ‘neutral’, with no backstory to work off of. it would be a struggle not to fall back upon your own self to use as a base, since you have no real sense of who you’re supposed to be portraying.


    • i agree — although I think it’s a generic problem. When I’m in a meeting with three other people, I’m never anywhere as alert as Armitage’s characters always are. But when he’s in a meeting it’s always in some kind of spy story so he can’t be seen to be screwing around or distracted, like normal people do / are in meetings. (Although interestingly — there’s a BTS feature somewhere about the weapons / tech of SB and they show him listening to the person instructing them about how to behave around the helicopter and he is alert as hell. So maybe he’s really like that in a professional situation.)


  2. He can do exhausted, because he can do what a character requires, he can play relaxed for the same reason. The high tension levels are his specialty. I think neutral has got to be the most difficult for him, simply because of his personality. He needs to do his thing of reading books and listening to music, and filling journals of who a character is. How do you play neutral, with no backstory when you have developed a character so fully? I’m not saying he can’t, I think he can play anything well. I just think it has to be the most difficult, so perhaps creates the most tension in him, as a person.


    • “no backstory” in this situation doesn’t mean the character has no backstory (if I understand this correctly) but rather that the moment has no backstory. It’s like (say), the character walks into a coffee shop and orders a coffee. They come to the scene, they are doing the things the character would do in that setting, but they don’t really have a rationale for being there. This is why I took the example of Harry when Geraldine comes to his cottage for the first time. She’s got a backstory (she wants to introduce herself and she’s annoyed that the cottage was bought by a Londoner) but he doesn’t. He’s moved there and he’s unpacking this stuff. After that interaction, presumably (really, after he starts staring at her so obviously) he has a backstory in every interaction.


  3. There’s always that one guy in the crowd scene that you can’t stop watching. The eye is drawn to him, even if he’s townsperson #2. Most of the time it is a combination of the actor’s use of tension and the actor’s specificity of focus. Where he’s looking and how he feels about it. If they have the tension but not the focus, it gets into scenery chewing. If they have the focus without the tension, they’re just kind of boring.

    Related to this is the use of attention and intention simultaneously (which would make sense when actors are dealing with “tension” in general, obvi!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you say so. I don’t have that experience. But I probably don’t watch enough TV.

      I’m trying to figure out a fairly specific problem here, and that works for me primarily by factoring out individual issues (note acknowledgement in the post of specific combinations) at this point anyway. Otherwise the writing becomes impossible to organize.


  4. I’ve been saying, from the moment I was an Armitage fan, that he was a real problem because it’s impossible to look away from him when he’s onscreen, so it’s impossible to just casually watch his stuff while trying to do other things.


    • yeah, to me he’s a real exception in this regard, although to be fair, by the time I was looking for him in crowds I knew who he was. But the scenes in Spooks are really telling. He’s never “just there”.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. 🙂 sujet sympa intéressant! merci!
    Il y a des acteurs qui arrivent à vous faire croire que ce qui se passe sous vos yeux n’était pas prémédité. Et ça c’est génial ! Parce que ça parait évident à première vue, mais jouer ainsi avec naturel c’est loin d’être acquis, simple pour certains acteurs, pour toutes les scènes, qu’ils jouent. Quand c’est réussi, on a l’impression de voir des personnages et pas des acteurs. Il est impossible de les « prendre en train de jouer ».
    En ce qui concerne Richard Armitage, c’est rare. J’ai du mal à souvent trouver un jeu SPONTANé, naturel. Dernièrement j’ai été bluffée dans l’acte 1 de Love love Love, quand il jouait le jeune frère insouciant, qui sautait sur les fauteuils, retombait avec cabrioles ( étymologie cabri= jeune chèvre). C’est très grisant, et jouissif pour le spectateur de ne plus détecter de travail, de tension sous-jacents et de profiter de la performance exceptionnellement spontanée, libérée de la cuisine préliminaire.


    • Sous pression il n’y a que tension dans le jeu ET sous tension extrême il n’y a que pression dans le jeu.


    • Yes, I think that’s correct. He’s really premeditated and at times it shows, not in the sense that he’s “indicating,” as the Method people used to say (i.e., you can see in his acting that he’s acting) but simply that there is something very tropic about a lot of his acting. I think this has something to do with his origins in dancing and his interest in physical theory, but it’s correct that he’s not Mr. Spontaneous.

      re: LLL, I wonder if there’s something in the mere fact of having to repeat something sooo often (the play alone 100 times, plus all the rehearsals) that makes it easier to riff as opposed to sticking with a planned performance.


  6. […] this last fall. I think the only thing they haven’t had that I wanted was some books on tension as an aspect of theater. Something cool about it: it has a basement level with a bunch of tropical plants where one can go […]


  7. […] I got onto this line of thinking after the dictionary exercises (because “wool-gathering” is such a beautiful word and I was sad about not being able to use it) and after writing the first article about tension, in which I also argue that Richard Armitage is hard to capture inha…. […]


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