RICHARD ARMITAGE IN CONVERSATION
He gives himself wholly to his art, to his commitment to work, and to questions at the Old Vic in London.
“The play makes me want to burn my own flesh off my body and I can’t do it,” says Richard Armitage, as he begins to pick apart the perspective-shattering experience he is having playing John Proctor in The Crucible.
It wasn’t quite the answer I was expecting from the star of the blockbuster franchise, The Hobbit, but it was a lot more interesting and honest than having a pretense of confidence when taking to the stage in the role for which he has garnered critical acclaim and five star reviews globally. Then again, maybe it’s not totally unexpected. Armitage is known for being self-critical of his work and for always striving to do better. Truth is, can a performance ever exceed the brilliantness of his heart wrenching delivery of Proctor day after day in the West End of London? After watching the play, it would be a very hard feat to top.
“I was filming up in Leeds. I was on an independent movie and Yael (Farber, the director of the play) travelled up. I think we had about an hour because she was about to go on to a plane to go back to Montreal. We met for breakfast and I was absolutely exhausted and so was she and she said ‘What scares you about this play?’ I said ‘I don’t know if I can do it.’” He’s reconciling the moment when he was approached to take on the role, which he has totally embodied in the last three months. Sat calmly in a red chair under the spotlights on the stage of the Old Vic theatre in London, the actor is very matter of fact about the fear he faced when considering taking on the role as he answered theatre critic, Matt Wolf’s questions about the production.
“What we were looking for is exactly what we had found at this moment in time. What I believe in really is that it’s about being in the right time and place. This particular play and this particular director, in this theatre, in this configuration, it just felt absolutely right. We talked about doing something that would be an event and certainly for me, it feels like it has been a real event.”
Elaborating on his role, Armitage revealed that it had been 13 long years since he last stepped afoot onto a stage and it felt right to reprise a role he once took on in his early twenties. “When I was at drama school, there were four actors playing John Proctor in my first year and I tackled Act Four of the play, so I had a tiny sample of what this character was and I was a 20-year-old actor who knew nothing about life.”
He has a refreshingly heartfelt and introspective take on the play and still feels an emotional pang when delivering Act Four. “The final quarter of the play are words that I still find hard to say and hard 20 years ago, but I never had to revisit a kind of drill of learning the lines of that portion, it somehow stayed in my mind, or somewhere in my body. It was just a gentle reminder of what the words were and what they meant. Every night I get to Act Four and think what a privilege it is to take a character to that place with those lines. Sometimes I think ‘I don’t know if I can do this today. I don’t know if I can get there,’ but the play takes you there, the lines take you there. When he calls to God at the end and I sort of see a particular light and for some reason it just catches me in the eye and I feel an ascent. It’s amazing.”
He pauses for a moment, deep in the existential thoughts that dominate the conversation reflecting on his inner turmoil at delivering the play in its entirety. “I remember the terror of getting through Act One and thinking, ‘God, that was pretty tough’ and then getting to the end of Act Two and sort of being on my knees vomiting in a bucket, just from Act One and Two, then putting Act Three on the end. When we finally did all four acts I was sat in the corner shaking and Yael came over to me and said ‘Are you ok?’ I said ‘Yeah – and we have to do this twice on Wednesday’s and Saturday’s!’”
Despite the seriousness of the effect the play has had on him physically, the actor’s natural charisma and endearing humour raises laughs at an incident on stage during a performance: “I had one particular dodgy matinee where I got a bit of carrot stuck in my throat from Elizabeth Proctor’s stew and literally for the other half of Act Two, I was trying to choke my way through and then after that at the stage door everyday were pots of honey.”
Armitage’s academic grounding, and arduous training for his profession has set him up with an inquisitive rigor that inveigles a wish to mull over existential issues of his character, to feel what he felt, as if to become the man himself and he went to Salem in order to achieve this: “I saw the place where Proctor’s house was, I saw the brook that runs by his stream, I saw the clearing by the woods where the girls supposedly danced.”
Plunging himself into the stark realities of life during those times for his character, he squared these thoughts with his job as an actor in order to get a heightened understanding of the man he became everyday: “I sharpened an axe for about four hours. The first few minutes you think you know how to sharpen an axe, then after four hours I thought ‘I really know how to sharpen an axe.’ When I was in Salem, I went to a couple of farms and I worked for a couple of days with cows, mucking out cows, sweeping out their urine and just getting a sense of what that daily toil for Proctor would have been.”
“Part of the preparation for me in becoming Proctor is by reading letters,” he says passionately, “I want to share a letter with you, I won’t say who wrote it, but it really touched me…”
The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthyism and Armitage can’t help but identify similar aspects of it to modern day life as he shares a letter sent to him from a young boy in Gaza who read about the play on the Internet. After his emotive reading of the letter he enthused, “The liberty and freedom we enjoy in the United Kingdom is hard won, but must be defended because there is always that looming shadow that will eventually find a foothold in times of crisis and gives us the potential to do to each other the terrible things that Miller takes us back to in 1692.”
Seeking to keep his passion and delivery of his performance at its peak, the closing remainder of performances of the production will not allow him to relax and ease off from the intensity of his role, in fact it motivates him. “There is a sense of how many more have I got left? He continues, “I do feel run through by the end of a show and I always seem to think ‘I don’t know if I can do another one,’ yet you do find the ability because I read that letter before the show. There is a sense on behalf of the Company of a job well done, but we can always go further. Yael has installed in us to never stop searching.”
To illustrate his earlier point about his commitment to the play and his role, Armitage references how difficult it is to detach himself from John Proctor, “It’s a very weird process when I come off stage, as I go in the shower and wash all of the blood off, which is kind of symbolic. I feel disrespectful if I throw him off and sort of throw him aside.”
Despite the fragility of Armitage after the performances, he still takes the time to give back to his fans that have travelled from across the world to see the man on stage, but even then, he is still not whole. “When I get to the stage door I am still bewildered. I sort of hear voices in the distance and I can’t quite see people because he is still there and I haven’t fought that, I have let that be there because I need him again the next night.”
The mental toll of playing this character is inwardly evident, but more disturbingly it is the outward evidence of what he has put himself through in order to deliver such stirring performances that shocked his attentive listeners: “I have vomited in Act Four, I have passed water in Act Four and nobody noticed… so I don’t tend to eat too much because it seems to find its way out again.”
Onstage and to some degree offstage Armitage has been put through an enjoyable but harrowing experience after encompassing the role so deeply. But the relentless productions have all been a learning experience, which has left its mark on the actor, leaving him with optimism, inspiration and an awe-inspiring new bravery. “I already feel changed. I think I have opened a part of myself, or Proctor has opened a part of myself, or somehow I have opened a part of Proctor, I don’t know which part of that is, but it had frightened me before and I guess I am no longer afraid.”
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