Crucible 10th August (Richard Armitage @Old Vic)

Note – i think we ended up creating a full new post in comments, so please feel free to read along too 😉

September!!!! 10th, 2014 Crucible Old Vic

(It’s too late to change the title now and i’ll just leave it like that with the wrong date, testimony of just how much my brain was scrambled last night 😉

Johan Persson photo of Richard Armitage in the Crucible/ Old Vic

Johan Persson photo of Richard Armitage in the Crucible/ Old Vic

This will probably be as incoherent as it gets and as jumbled and illogical and on some level probably very embarrassingly emotional (apologies for any mistakes and typos, English is not my first language and under the circumstances I don’t have time tonight for decent editing, please bear with me). But I’ve decided to do this tonight nevertheless since I’ve got not option tomorrow morning but to put this under lock and key for the day and put the work brain on and try and use it. It is unfair! Living in London gives me these incredible experiences, but at the same time makes me wish I was a tourist on holiday and I could talk the night away after a show or walk the next day and still think about it and feel about it. The hardest thing is having to drag oneself to work the next day when everything about you screams it wants to hold on to last night for a tiny bit longer. So this is me trying to hold on…

I couldn’t have possibly imagined the 4th Crucible would feel like this. Don’t get me wrong, I fully expected it to grip me and take me on the journey as the other 3 times have, but it was a familiar path by now that was tough to walk, but which was so transforming each time you reached the end that I had no quibbles subjecting myself to it again.

I still hope I’ll retrace the other 3 as they are still vivid in my mind, untarnished by tonight’s experience, all the angst,  the frustration, feeling like a blubbering mess at the end, I’ll never forget that. There is so much that fascinated me about the play from the start, all the layers, the complex characters, the thousand stories told in the 1 play: from racism and slaves, to hatred, envy, religion, revolution and love of all kinds. There really is so much to talk about! But I did expect tonight to make a similar emotional journey as each of the other nights, not the same, but familiar.

It’s just that… it wasn’t. Serves me right I think for getting too comfortable about it to end up the night out of breath, frightened to the core and feeling like I’ve been stamped on by 100 horses. I was literally too shocked to cry.

I am not entirely sure I would choose tonight as the definitive Crucible of the ones I’ve seen; there was a level of tenderness, almost melancholy that had developed in the previous ones that wasn’t as present today. I particularly missed what to me is ‘John Proctor, the poet’ 🙂 More about that hopefully later. Today all throughout there was more volatility to the action, it felt as if the few moments of peace were cut much shorter and were always under threat by the overriding feeling of anxiety, fear and anger. It felt as if it was the shortest yet – I suspect it was the same in duration – but the increased intensity of it all made it feel faster.

I wonder how much influence in tonight’s atmosphere did the video recording have and how much is due to the end of the run approaching oh so fast? I guess both things made everyone take stock consciously and as a result some choices were made for the way they played their characters which all led to tonight’s outcome. I mean this very positively. By no means am I implying the actors haven’t thought about their performances before or made conscious choices, but I did have a feeling that it had been a more organic, almost subconscious evolution,  with subtle rather than dramatic changes.

Tonight we didn’t get just subtle changes, we got new takes on some lines, whole changes in atmosphere in some scenes.

For example, Danforth was not just forceful but rather more Machiavellian than before, his speeches had slightly less obvious force but far more evil twisted menace, which was very enjoyable to watch. I caught myself actually enjoying his spin on things at times and the almost velvety malice he developed, whereas in previous performances fear and frustration with him was the overriding tone.

Poor Mary Warren seemed to have found new levels of terror and you just wanted to hug her and whisk her away. But she became frighteningly vicious in her accusations of Proctor in the trial scene. The way she pointed and shouted at him took Proctor literally aback, it was horrible to watch and I think I never felt her turning on him quite as acute as I did today.

As frightened as she is, as frightening is Abigail. She’s always sacred me with her intensity, but today the first scene in Parris’ house between her and John was telling and her words showed us the inevitable end. John fights her off but doesn’t realise that she will never stop. She can’t and I’ve heard it today as clear as I hadn’t quite grasped it before. She says he’s opened her eyes to life and he cannot ask her to close them again. We’ve just heard how her parents were killed, we see how restricted girls have to live, Proctor has unknowingly opened the door to a new world for her, or unlocked the wildness in her and what has been freed cannot be locked up again. Too bad he didn’t realise it, but for me tonight her words spelled doom in big bold, unmistakable letters. Before I’ve been so riveted by their violent dance I don’t think I’ve paid quite as much attention to all words as I did today. But today I knew she’d stop at nothing. She was also much more violent in her threats to the other girls. She’s strong enough to corner John into admitting he may still think fondly of her, even though he then rejects her. I felt that unlike other times she really had the upper hand in that particular scene.

Giles and Francis were the only ones who hadn’t been infected by the violence in the air, their natural, warm way was almost like a grounding point in normality, making the abnormality of everything else even more shocking.

Parris decayed from act3 accuser to act4 frightened lost man all the more convincingly, but what I found particularly hard to deal with tonight was the level of violence displayed against Tituba in act 1.   The light of God certainly didn’t shine in this man (at which point I have to say that it takes a wonderful actor to accept and be able to display the level of cowardice that characterises Parris. And today once more I realised that his weakness in the last act makes me sympathise with him and for that I have to thank Michael Thomas.)

Ah, and this is a point I’d like to make: I don’t hate any of the characters! None. This is partly due to the play being absolutely brilliant in giving the characters substance, but equally as much due to Yael Farber and each actor who makes the roles become living breathing, believable, flawed humans. For me it’s no mean feat that this never descends into caricature evilness or greatness. There is no absolute hero (no, there isn’t ;-)) but there is also no absolute evil. Yes there are motivations and flaws and a whole array of character traits, but we get to see everyone vulnerable at some point and what could easily be hate becomes pity and sympathy. Of course a major factor in balancing the overall view is Proctor’s ascent to heroism 🙂 His transformation and also characters like Giles or Rebeca Nurse, Elizabeth and Hale and their particular paths give us I think sufficient redemption and light to allow us to forgive or at least look with sympathy upon the ones who are unable to evolve or better themselves.

Hale is one of my favourite characters, the one I personally empathise most with, especially at the end. I’m in awe of Proctor’s will and determination, but the argument that resonates with me and is closest to my heart is the one Hale makes, about life being more important than anything (my own religious doubts coming into play which push me to be more sympathetic towards choosing life rather than redemption in death). And just like the level of cowardice in Parris must be very hard to play, so is Hale’s gradual realisation and damnation. He is a good man I think Goody Proctor would say and when a good man like him, a minister, realises he is partially responsible for the deaths of innocents and not only that, but in order to try and save a few, he has to make them go against their strongest religious beliefs, well then he is truly damned. Adrian Schiller’s descent from the calm, collected minister to the tortured soul at the end has fascinated me each night and it is subtly gradual. Tonight I thought at first it was somewhat delayed until it plummeted startlingly. It starts in the trial scene and his attempts to save Proctor, but the real knife-in-gut moment was in the last act when he explains that, were he unable to save Proctor, he would be a murderer. The despair in his voice, the amount of guilt those lines carried was enormous.  And in that one word he managed tonight to make you see all the bodies of those hanged one by one. Horrifying and heart-breaking.

I have to say that at the final applause, when he managed to collect himself from the floor where he had fallen as they were dragging Proctor out to be hanged, his face was so filled with grief and despair still – to the depths of his eyes – that I had to look away, it felt indecent to applaud, though I did, but it just felt as if that linger of grief was almost too private.

And I felt the same with Elizabeth and John (Anna Madeley and Richard Armitage), it was almost as if I’d have been watching them come back from within their characters.

And there it was again tonight with Elizabeth too, the feelings, the intensity  vibrating all around her. Before, I’ve always felt she managed to lay calm over rejection, that it was her belief, her religion that held her steadfast. Well today there was much more than that, there was clear anger, suspicion and mistrust. Let’s put it that way, even though she does all her domestic duties, prepares the stew, prepares his water, it’s clear she’s got a bee in her bonnet! And she started with hitting that bread dough extra hard against the table. Yes we can see the fatigue, the weariness, but it’s clear when she says it that she is just waiting to ask him where he’s been. I hadn’t noticed that before, but for example when he sits down to eat he extends his hand next to the plate trying to grab for hers, but she ignores him deliberately and pulls her hand away. Her rejection of his kiss went today as far as turning her head away, not just standing still and not reacting.

Ok, I’ll admit I liked this scene slightly softer, more melancholic as I’d experienced it gradually before, tonight the overriding feeling between them was frustration and anger. It fitted the overall feel of increasing threat, uneasiness which was relentless. But I did miss a bit of the softer ebb and flow of other nights. In secret, I do wish some of that would come back for the last night 😉

But you’d be wrong if you think I blame her or would like her to soften up. I have to go back to previous evenings to explain myself. The first time I met John Proctor I didn’t like him at first, that scene with Abigail doesn’t speak to his advantage, let’s face it, he’s been cheating on his wife. And in the next scene he’s shouting at Elizabeth for judging him while he’s been again not entirely truthful, though no longer cheating. It took me all to the end of act 2 to see him heartbroken when they take her, to start forgiving him myself. And my opinion of him improved gradually from then on. Of course once you have experienced the end you see Proctor in a very different light. And that transformation stays with you next time you see the play and you’ll never see Proctor the same again.

Except tonight I did! I honestly didn’t think Richard Armitage could erase Proctor from my mind and recreate him from scratch as if I hadn’t seen him before. But because he was weaker with Abigail and more forceful with Elizabeth I felt resentment, dislike! And I couldn’t stop myself from feeling these things or rationalise them away. I wanted to slap him when he sat in shame in his chair while Abigail was claiming him and I wanted to slap him again when he was shouting at Elizabeth she wasn’t God to judge him! But he managed to be so angry at Elizabeth that you realised he was still being angry at himself. The confrontation between the 2 was so intense, so angry, so frustrating that you got a very sad sense of a completely broken relationship. Today I had my doubts if mending it would even be possible. And then with one tiny gesture Armitage convinced me that possibility was still out there: in the midst of their fight as Hale turns up they turn next to each other from facing each other and he almost instinctively half grabs her hand. And in that once instance even with resentment still bubbling, they become a united front again. Not only that, but in that one tiny gesture John not only takes the protective role again, but also communicates that ultimately his anger is with himself, his care for her is stronger, deeper than the recent fight. So he put me on the path to forgiveness all over again! Even when she completes the last commandment with a harsh “adultery“, his tone is auto -ironical but not harsh towards her. He accepts her reprimand with some frustration but the tone still says: we are a unit. Amazing!

I was searching for a word to define how he made John Proctor different today, where the threat came from and I found it: volatility! There has always been a sense of Proctor being a man of deep passions and convictions, but while other evenings he’s controlling these, tonight he was volatile and the swings where more intense, dramatic and unpredictable. From his broken voice one minute after they have taken Elizabeth to turning towards Mary with a look in his eyes that was almost madness; no wonder she scurries away in fright, he looked and acted completely unhinged. And here is where you get a sense of Proctor as a good man. He’s not good because he’s religious or always doing the right thing, he’s good because his sense of right and wrong always overrides any impulses (well, almost always ;-)) He has the choice, and he chooses the right thing.

The irony of the conflict with Mary and the trial scene is not lost on the audience; however I think Miller makes it clear that although Proctor has a temper and that temper is under strain as they have just taken his wife away, force will not be his ultimate solution, not against poor Mary. Though we see him raging in that instance, by the next act it’s clear he’s persuaded her to do the right thing, and she has come to that decision herself not due to threats but convictions. Richard Armitage has perfected that dance on the edge masterfully, so much so that you trust him enough to actually go along and let him frighten you, let yourself wonder how far he will go for Elizabeth. Again and again you see him having a go at Mary but stopping when he sees her really vulnerable. There is righteousness and anger in him, but there is no mean streak.

And so the evening was dominated by fear, fear of Danforth and the authority, the hanging and the jail and fear of one man’s passion. And guess what keeps you more on edge?? Of course it is Proctor! While the authority is absurd, illogical and abusive, we know exactly what to expect from it. But we never know what Proctor will do next. You can watch his eyes and his facial expressions and still not know what will come next. And I think it takes him and drags him along as much as it does us. When he violently circles the round denouncing the court, appalled at the insanity, it is a tipping point. Although we know what is what, it feels as if the insane one is him, his world has tipped upside down and he doesn’t see a way to put it right. Richard circles the round in massive steps getting up close to each judge in the frightening “ we will buuuurrrn..” lines and suddenly had to pull himself back forcefully almost as the next step took him right up the first bench of innocent audience members. It felt like they only very narrowly escaped the wave of his wrath.

And you think it can’t possibly get even more intense than this, but then it does.

Elizabeth and John laughing and crying together, forehead to forehead has to be one of my favourite images from all shows. He’s sitting broken and tortured in the chair she pulled for him, she is kneeling at his feet and we get a glimpse of what their relationship was like in the good days. Anna and Richard manage to make that scene so natural it’s almost domestic. And what is so spellbinding is how immediate their contact is and how strong the bond, in spite misery, jail etc. ( this is the rattiest shirt yet I’ve seen for the last act, Proctor looked like he’s been tortured more than last time and everything on him looked just horrible, double the wounds and tears than the other times).

What also becomes immediately obvious is that what has broken Proctor is his guilt, his own sense of shame. And it is heartbreaking how Elizabeth’s proof of love comes in a desperate attempt to lift that blame away.

The moment that made me wince physically and knotted my stomach is in his struggle to sign the confession, when he faces Rebecca Nurse the way his back literally broke at her gentle “oh, John!”. It’s hard to describe how a man so tall, so physically able, can collapse in on himself and give you the physical impression that he is trying to dig himself into the ground.

And then, just went you feel the need to reach out and comfort, something inside him grows. It’s like a sort of emotional supernova, he collapses inwardly only to explode with greater force and engulf everything around him. As he started to straighten and his voice started to clear and gain force you could almost feel the threat coming in frightening slow motion. A simple movement like straightening ones spine had the entire hall spellbound in absolute silence. And there he was, John Proctor, twice as tall, stronger than ever, suddenly unleashed, hand firmly lifted with the confession.  Richard Armitage said in the conversation that the play made him want to burn, well, I could almost swear I’ve seen the flesh burn off his body tonight in that scene. I think every single person in the Vic not only heard his name but physically felt it.

Then, in absolute silence he slowly lifts the other hand and rips the paper in two. You could literally feel the physical force emanating from him. It’s a very beautiful moment!

And then he turns and in utter shock sees Elizabeth and realises what this means for her and for them. And for me this is the actual death scene. It’s goodbye but he makes it at the same time into a celebration of life. I honestly felt that he was almost transferring all his life force to Elizabeth in that one kiss. He lifted her very very high up, caressed her hair after loosening it and literally gave her the kiss of life in a way. Whatever they dragged away after that was just the empty shell of John Proctor. I felt as if his spirit had stayed with Elizabeth.

People jumped up in standing ovations and I could hardly stand as I felt my knees knocking together and my hands shaking. I have no exact idea of how I got to my bus, except I missed my various bus stops and had to get off and start again and it took me a really long while to start breathing close to normal. I still feel a bit frightened of what I watched. I know this was the 4th show in just 2 days and I have no explanation of how such performances are even possible. Wherever that energy came from that made everyone turn themselves inside out and literally explode within the round I am grateful for it and frightened of it a bit too. I hope that we managed to give back to all these wonderful actors some of the enormous energy we received from them (otherwise as I mentioned I’d feel like an emotional vampire!).  I am very very grateful for their dedication and talent, today was extraordinary!

And Richard Armitage, you should come with a warning label on stage: emotionally contagious! May be dangerous to your health! 🙂

One more to go…. And now I really don’t know what to expect!

To be continued…

PS for those curious about these details, I stumbled through nearest exit right next to stage door and I must have been of the first to exit and there was already a cue to the corner. Must be people who didn’t see the show, if they left early… well they missed all that. I couldn’t have possibly had a normal human conversation with anyone or anything at that point. Nor did I frankly think anyone on stage could give me anything more than they already had. I wouldn’t have accepted even a miniounce of energy from any of them, just wouldn’t have felt right. Saying thanks may have felt right, but are there any thanks that can do justice to this performance? Again I don’t believe so, anything to be said had been said inside the doors this night. I don’t mean to say it’s not nice and so on, just that I couldn’t have possibly stayed there or said anything. I stayed once and it was a very pleasant experience which hopefully I’ll get to tell you about over the next few days.