Saying goodbye to John Proctor (Crucible, Old Vic, 13th September 2014)

Richard Armitage as John Proctor by Jay Brooks

Richard Armitage as John Proctor by Jay Brooks

I won’t. Not at the end of last night’s Crucible and actually not ever. He’s part of me now as are all the 5 performances I’ve witnessed and most definitely last night’s. I know I’ll see the play again because it is a very very good one, but Armitage will always be ‘my’ Proctor to which all Proctors will be compared 🙂 And same goes for all the other characters in it who now feel so familiar to me.

I think it is somewhat easier for the actors to cope with the end of the run than for us the audience/fans.  It is what they do, they live within and with the characters for a few months, bond with colleagues, but then invariably move on to other characters and colleagues to very likely never return to what has just ended. This loss and rebirth as someone different is part of their lives. I don’t know how they do it and haven’t seen many talk about the process (but I haven’t looked specifically), it’s probably different for each person. But they are through experience better equipped to deal with it than us.

I’m not completely unused to this, I’ve done full runs of opera performances a number of times, because I love the performance as a whole and there is joy in discovering the evolution of the piece through performances. But there are only ever 6-7 of those in a run over what is usually about a 2 – 2 ½ week period. I’ve never been so close to a performance for a period of 3 months. And it creates a very different perspective and experience. It is no longer a performance I loved, it is literally 3 months of my life. It means I’ve had time in 3 months to think about it a lot, to view things in light of what the play expresses for me, to discover the actors again and again. And they have changed over their 100 performances (thereabouts, not counted) as well.

Because I started from absolute zero in this case I could have seen quite a few more to discover more nuances, more gestures… but this is potentially an infinite cycle because they play felt slightly different every time so there is always something new to discover 🙂

There comes a time, and I think 3 months is about right, when it’s right to stop the experimentation, the exploration for the simple fact that we have to accept it is potentially endless and never enough. With plays like the Crucible and performances such as we have witnessed,  the mystery will always be there, the complexity, all that you can see and sense and the sense at the same time that there is forever more behind it, inside it that we neither fully understand nor grasp.  But that sense of familiar and unknown is what will keep it alive in our memories. If we fully understood it and explained everything about it we would be able to close the door on it and would not be tempted to go back to our impressions and memories.

So I don’t say goodbye to it, I’m just accepting the transition from being inside of it and being overwhelmed by it, to it rather being inside of me where it’s burning much slower, but where I can go back to it whenever i search for it again.

I’m happy I was there last night, to get one last taste of it, not because the atmosphere was special ( it was by far the worst audience in all I’ve been) but because in most performances I was lucky to get those expressions and variations that I loved most across the run. It felt like my personal wishlist fulfilled 🙂 And that was a wonderful treat because I never expected it!  I’d like to thank every actor on stage, I couldn’t imagine this play without either of you, I’m sorry I’m not getting round to mentioning everyone separately but it was as good as it was thanks to each of you!

Natalie Gavin’s Mary Warren is very dear to me, the way that girl fights all her fears  to try and stand up for the right thing in court is beautiful and I will never understand why people had to laugh on some nights at her desperate attempts to faint in that scene. Last night only 2 of my neighbouring torturers laughed there and that was really good, that even last night’s unsettled audience recognised how wonderful she was. I also liked the way she stood up to Proctor in the 2nd act, she  felt like a rebellious teenager having a go at her parents in the fight for growing up and being responsible. She was lucky she met with a softer Proctor last night 😉 I think it’s a beautiful, natural and very believable character and she made me like Mary every single night and yesterday more than ever.

What was special last night as well was the friendship between William Gaunt’s  Giles Corey, Neil Salvage’s Francis Nurse and John Proctor. The little exchange between Proctor and Corey in act 1 about the lumber and Proctor being allowed to call him deaf was so warm, so good natured. A very manly, warm bond, these two fully understand each other, support each other, joke about each other. It was as if seeing a chat between 2 friends in a pub after work. 2 mates who have been friends all their life. The glee in Corey when he went to snub Putnam to support Proctor in the lumber dispute and the warm, loving smile on Proctor’s face when he told Corey he paid when he sued him for the privilege to call him deaf now. A perfectly tuned double act which is so lovely to see in stage. Which took on much more poignant aspects at the end of act 2 and in the court scene, the way both Francis and Giles try to support Proctor when Elizabeth is taken with small gestures like grabbing his hand and with much bigger gestures in court. I think I was so focused on the million other things going on in this play that the profound friendship and respect these 3 men share somehow registered more on a subconscious level. Well it certainly warmed my heart yesterday and it felt so real that maybe all 3 actors let some of their mutual respect shine through in their acting.

It is where I felt last night experience shone through, at this stage in the game to make the relationships more natural is amazing. Maybe it is a way of bringing in that feeling of respect, friendship that has developed over the last 3 months within the performance. After all they probably spent most of the time together on stage, so it is natural for that to be the bonding ground or natural expression not just of acting but of some element of personal feelings of appreciation too.

Jack Ellis changed his game again and this time rather than Mr Machiavelli who I liked so much last time we got a level of authority and force that literally wiped the floor with all of us. Ok, I had a personal moment of satisfaction when it came to the moment in which he points to the audience and tells them to be silent 🙂 But what I liked most was his last act, his anger and impatience at all these people who don’t follow his orders, can’t stick to the rules of the game and ask him to be lenient. The incredible level of shouting he managed to do left everyone speechless, but it is probably the expression of the character knowing that the ground is shaking under his feet and he is unable to hold his world together. You did want to kill him though when he was telling Elizabeth she was devoid of feeling. How Anna Madeley managed not to break down in sobs at those accusing words yesterday I don’t know to be honest. But yes, I suspect that Jack Ellis’ Danforth will be the one for me to beat  (and that will be pretty impossible of you ask me). He was magnificent last night!

What can I say about Adrian Schiller that I haven’t already said, hard to believe it if I hadn’t seen it that he managed to be even more human and broken last night. My favourite moments where his conversation in the Proctor household about the softness of their records, and his last words to them “God keep you both; let the third child be quickly baptized, and go you without fail each Sunday in to Sabbath prayer; and keep a solemn, quiet way among you.” They were said which such warmth and good intention, he really is the spirit of a reverend, I liked those few words very much because they were so well meant and said. Last night when he named himself a murderer he was hardly able to speak the word it pained and shamed him so. And when asked what he was doing there and he said: to do the devil’s work! Etc etc.. I think one can safely and truly said Hale’s suffering and shame had Procterian proportions and was as touching. From where I sat I saw him falling to the floor after they have taken Proctor away, in as much pain as Elizabeth herself for loosing Proctor. Hale to you, favourite reverend of mine… I think of many ministers and priests there are in plays that I never really find convincing and sympathetic on a human level at the same time, yours made me believe that in spite of mistakes and pride he starts out with, Hale is the reverend that does have some divine light in him (in the way that would help guide and counsel people).

Anna Madeley was the one half of what was for me yesterday the perfect couple! I could not have wished for or imagined a more beautiful portrayal of their lifelong relationship. She was soft and warm, but also showed character. It was for me the best mix of all nights I’ve seen in that she may not have expressed her love in words but it was there in her first exchanges with Proctor and especially in the anger with which she spat the word ‘whore!’ every time she mentioned Abigail. And oh was it beautiful and wonderful in her almost desperate ‘when you come to know that I will be your only wife, or no wife at all!’ Sometimes you felt her exchanges in the 2nd act came out of duty, religious conviction, sense of right and wrong but yesterday it was clearly love and passion! It was not about the rules of marriage and the dos and don’ts according to the Bible it was about what she felt and what hurt her and about possession out of love (as a friend of mine aptly put it). Proctor is hers and nobody else will have him 🙂 It was so passionate and so beautiful and satisfying to see and hear. She put last night some of the passion that she puts in words in act 4 in her expressions and tones in act2. To the point where I did wonder yesterday for the first time(!!!! Which goes to show how much one can still discover even at the last minute) how Proctor does not notice just how much she loves him!

In the end scene her incessant ‘it is not for me to forgive you’ and ‘do what you will’ felt truly torturous because she loves him just the way he is and she can’t make a decision like that, how could she and it is there and then that we see what Danforth was looking to see, her begging and suffering. Aren’t she and John a marvellous pair! Both so passionate and proud and not letting those ‘dogs’ have any of their suffering and tears!

Theirs last night was a beautifully human, lifelong relationship, with hickups and difficulties as life is, but filled with love and passion and care for each other where it counts. Me meet them in a difficult time with his mistake and guilt, her having been unwell for long and feeling betrayed and both not really finding the right words to hash the problems out. But there was never any shred of doubt about their love for each other 🙂 And the romantic in me just glowed and glowed 🙂

It’s maybe silly, because there is nothing to say this is the more valid version of the interpretation, but amongst all the tragedy and ugliness in the play I always needed this element of light to be equally strong. Basically I still want something beautiful and positive to feel amongst the anguish.

And then there was Richard Armitage, the artist.

It is sad to think we will never see him again be John Proctor on stage, but my God was his wonderful last night. I don’t know if actors remember what they actually did on stage or it sort of happens to them and within them. I think if I was to wish him something I’d wish for him to remember all of his last night’s Proctor because every single second of it was beautiful.

I’ve mentioned some instances above but there were so many many more! Starting with the wistful expression on his face when he comes back home and hears Elizabeth singing and starts taking his coat off and leaves the rifle and does it all so softly as if he doesn’t want to break the spell her singing puts on him. I couldn’t see it but I’ve been told he then washed himself almost violently, as if trying to wash the sin away from himself. And what follows is a dialogue filled with both sweetness and awkwardness. There was never a more sincere and heartfelt ‘I mean to please you, Elizabeth’ said! And it was said with softness and from the heart, not argumentative or trying to convince her of his actions. It was him saying those words but actually meaning ‘I love you, Elizabeth’. And her reply sounded as if this time she did believe him. And this time she didn’t completely reject his kiss and he was particularly gentle, but alas, she does turn away .  But it makes Proctor rather sad, not angry, when he asks her to bring flowers she is genuinely surprised and he carries on ( in a bit of a romantic mood Proctor tonight) trying to engage with her again. And there his was, my favourite incarnation of Proctor in this scene, the poet! Imagine these words said as if they burst out of his heart, with abandon, enchantment almost: ‘On Sunday let you come with me, and we’ll walk the farm together; I never see such a load of flowers on the earth. Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think. Massachusetts is a beauty in the spring!’

You really really want her to say yes, let’s go…. But as we know she’s got the worries about Salem on her mind that she is trying to speak to him about and is distracted and when she doesn’t really engage with his mood, the sadness in his ‘I think you’re sad again. Are you?’ is almost unbearable…

And so the argument starts, although this time it is almost with reluctance on both sides. And there was somewhat more disappointment in his words than anger but his hesitations only make her more angry as it is obvious he has not been completely open with her.

What then becomes increasingly obvious from their exchange with Mary is that he sense the danger and you can feel the fear in both him and Elisabeth rising, he’s so preoccupied and worried that he doesn’t even shout at Mary when she argues around about going to bed or not.

I loved their next little exchange with him sitting Elizabeth down and practically kneeling at her feet. Yes they argue but what Armitage convey incredibly well is the increasing sense of shame throughout the conversation with Elizabeth when she rather bluntly tries to explain that he’s not got the full grasp of what expectations he’s opened in Abigail. He almost squirms in discomfort and his anger is an instant expression of it. And it is so evident on both their faces how the discussion brings back what each of them felt over these 7 months, her the hurt and suspicion and jealousy and him the shame of his mistake. The way his voice quaked with guilt in these words was incredible! ‘When will you know me, woman? Were I stone i would have cracked for shame this seven month!’ and the disappointment when he asks her if she truly thinks him so base…

He can’t forgive himself but he knows within himself as he already said to Abigail that he would rather cut his arm off than touch her again, but to him Elizabeth’s questions indicate her continued distrust in his loyalty to her. His cry out of ‘I am honest!’ is so anguished and defeated as is her angry explosion about ever being his only wife. But it does feel on both sides that this is probably where many of their arguments ended before and you sense they are not listening to each other anymore and what they actually mean.

But as the other night as soon as Hale comes in they instantly bond again and the whole argument seems forgotten ( or delayed for later). All Proctors answers from now on are marked by exactly that, a deep sense of honesty. And often during the discussion with Hale he gravitates towards where Elizabeth sits and talk while holding a hand on her chair, especially when he speaks of the baptism of his children.

Particularly poignant was the exchange during the commandments, John is obviously nervous but Elizabeth’s addition of ‘adultery’ is not as harsh as on other night, it comes in an accepting tone and so is his reaction, his tone is low and restrained and both their stances say, our problem is private and only for us two to share. It is endearing as I’ve never felt their convergence at that instance before. And with every word then onwards his protective instincts rise  and he never leaves Elizabeth’s side. Whereas his attitude has been somewhat subdued until now, his anger and his tone of voice rises with each exchange. Whatever weakness there may have been it is gone.

The way he rages against Hale, everyone, hoping against hope they will not take her. Their separation at the end of act 2 is almost as painful as the last, he holds on with both hands to her arms, higher up but gently as not to crush her and the desperation on his face is enormous, the look they exchange is so silent and powerful and the way he pleads crying almost that he will come to save her was incredible! It is almost a reversed situation from what we see at the very end when he is the strong one and Elizabeth lies crying in his arms. The way he begs and fights with them not to chain her is horrendous, his voice a mixture of tears and anger.

Any of the words and lines and expressions in the whole act 2 could be marvelled at in their perfection. I could rewatch that act the way I saw it a million times and still be touched by every breath. If I knew nothing more of John Proctor I would admire him and pity him and feel with him both in anger and in pain.

And his choice is easily made, once Mary reveals Abigail threatened to accuse him, he means to do anything and everything drag himself down with Abigail but Elizabeth must be saved. The conviction he expressed there is final, it is the point I think when he decides his life is worthless, he cannot be saved and is rotten ( as he says to Elizabeth later in act 4).

Act 3 was another high wire balance between striking the right level of respect in his tone to make himself heard and loosing the grip on his anger and fear in the light of the absurd and violent goings on. The mix of disgust and fear that races through his voice and stance when he talks about Abigail wanting to dance with him on Elizabeth’s grave is so telling of how appealed he is now at the consequences of his mistake. He realises and I think he finally understands what Elizabeth was trying to tell him earlier because for the first time he calls Abigail a whore with the same conviction Elizabeth has done before.

Also telling his little gestures when they bring in Elizabeth and although he can’t see her, they seem to gravitate instinctively towards each other, at first his head is bowed and then as she speaks openly and he thinks she will share the whole story he almost seems to want to give her courage, he straightens and lifts his head at her voice almost bringing himself physically closer to her.

And from then onwards he proceeded to create an act 4 of such intensity and beauty that I will be forever amazed I saw something like it on a live stage. From the instance he came dragged in and saw Elizabeth and just froze and how she looked at him and leaning into her, touching with gentleness and amazement with his tortured extended fingers her belly and the child within, to leaning towards her and talking to her in the softest of tones.

Then he rose up while still looking broken (how does one manage to do that???) with extended pleading hands towards heaven crying ‘God, what is John Proctor?’ Those few lines always torture me as he proceeds to move almost like a beast in a cage talking about himself as fraud, as doing evil. His voice melds disgust and determination in equal measures while his body contorts expressing the inner struggle that comes with his decision. It is awful and riveting to behold as it seems like it should be impossible to be this and say these things and yet it happens before your eyes!

And he continues by crawling towards the table, shying away in shame from Rebecca by bowing even further down and turning his neck and face, trying to cover it with his blood streaked hands. It hurts to even remember the images, it was like watching a beaten, tortured animal writhing in front of you.

The suddenly the transformation happens and he  becomes man again with ‘You have all witnessed it is enough.’ The whole weight of the world lies in that one little word, enough! It is hard to describe how he weighs the word down and makes it sound like so much of torture, lies and encompasses everything in it, it doesn’t mean stop, it means no more lies, no more abuse, no more authority. It is in a way a mirror of ‘God is dead’. What he means is ‘this ends now’. And he repeats it again and again and again with ever more conviction and with every time he raises up and the voice becomes firmer and John Proctor becomes of a strange and riveting beauty in his transformation.

I can’t describe it with any other word than beauty, like the most beautiful painting (which may well be of a tortured saint), or very much like a Rodin statue. It is what he has most reminded me of in this final scene. Voice rising and muscles along his neck and shoulders twisting, sinews straining at every word supporting the body from inside by sheer force of will. It is of a frightening beauty, a very human and extremely powerful beauty.  And it’s impossible to look away.

And then he turns towards Elizabeth and she falls weeping on her knees  at his feet. With a tear shredded voice he tells her not to let them have her tears and arm shaking lifts her from her knees to way way up high above his head and brings her gently down into the kiss, spins her in a powerful hug around, kisses her again and after trying to quickly support Rebecca in passing bring his hand back to Elizabeth’s arm and while they start dragging him away, looking deeply into her arms….. he smiles at her. The most serene, beautiful, blissful smile one can imagine which illuminates his cheeks and sets his eyes alight and the smiles stays there until he disappears into the darkness beyond.

And it’s the last image we see of John Proctor, his smile.

Richard Armitage was John Proctor and I have witnessed it 🙂