I’ve just got back from a blissfully child free twenty four hours spent with The Husband in London, where we went to see Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at The Old Vic. Now, plenty of people far more erudite than me have written reviews of the play, and it would be tedious to repeat what many have said, so I’ll keep this personal and hopefully interesting.
And I’m not just talking about Richard ‘John Proctor’ Armitage here. Anyone who’s read this blog knows he’s up there as the visual embodiment of Far From the Tree’s Matthew Carter, so I definitely had an interest in seeing this play that was a little more than academic, but I tell you now, there is so much more to this interpretation of the play, and this cast, than Armitage.
In putting those people together in that formation, in that place, Yael Farber has achieved the impossible. She has created an interpretation of Miller’s play that is at once fresh and also timeless. It could be any village, any place, any group of victims, and yet, it’s also simultaneously rooted in Salem mythology. The set dressing is very northern mill town, with a grimy, grey feel that runs from the draped sheets on the balconies to the costumes to the ‘ash’ falling at strategic points from the rigs. All of the cast are covered in muck, and later, blood, and shabby from top to toe. This is hard living, a hard life. The cast brings on the furniture and props for each scene, mostly limited to tables, chairs and a bed.
How to describe the group of teenage girls, led by the beyond-malicious Abigail Williams? Samantha Colley has the perfect balance of vulnerability and calculation, and channelled every single expression in between. There were points when she and her gaggle of ‘bewitched’ teenagers reminded me so strongly of a pack of Year 9 schoolgirls I felt like I was in one of my own teaching nightmares. Their body language, facial expressions and horrifying palpitations were electrifying. Special mention must go to Marama Corlett for the way she contorts her body into impossible positions.
Samantha Colley herself was superlative. Never has a woman scorned been so visceral. In every sinew she channelled her anger, hurt and resentment towards Proctor. At times the audience feels a real sympathy for her and her plight. She is labelled a whore for her actions, but she is, in reality, a hurt child who turns her anger and hatred outwards with the most destructive of consequences. Colley’s Abigail was pitch perfect, and she refuses to flinch in the face of such pressure from the male hierarchy of judges. Utterly brilliant. And another mention must go to Natalie Gavin’s Mary Warren, who captured Mary’s gawky naivety perfectly. From head to toe, she was the girl who wanted so desperately to fit in, going along with Abigail’s plan and then feeling torn between the right and wrong paths. Her fear in the face of both Proctor and Abigail was tangible, and her comic lines were perfectly timed. I felt so much for her when, terrified, she returned to Abigail’s clutches in the court, and that shows just how outstanding Natalie Gavin was.
Rebecca Saire’s Goody Puttnam is an enthralling blend of neurosis and fragility. I remember her well from ‘The Fisher King’ episode of Midsomer Murders, where her Miriam Hartley Reade was another portrayal of a fragile, vulnerable woman (incidentally, playing opposite the gorgeous Nicholas Rowe, whom I’ve loved since childhood). She captured the lengths to which a grief stricken mother will go to find reasons for her loss perfectly, and I adored her performance.
Anna Madeley as Elizabeth Proctor was the perfect foil for Armitage’s John. Their representation of a long marriage, blighted by adultery, was painfully divine. I defy any married woman not to identify with Elizabeth’s hurt and pain, represented by a strict adherence to routine, a yearning to put things back to the way they were. She tapped into something that anyone in a long term relationship could understand, whether or not they’ve been betrayed in the way Proctor betrays his wife; the notion that you might love someone, but at times you are still unable to connect completely with them, for whatever reason. The wall between Elizabeth and John is gossamer thin, but constructed of something unbreakable. Neither are able to get through until it’s too late, and Madeley communicates this beautifully. It’s such an incredible performance; gentle, but with an underlying strength and steel. Mesmerising. And that final kiss was magical.
Sarah Niles’ Tituba captured the clash of culture and religion perfectly – a physical, hearty performance that tapped into the rawness of the emotions of the play, and raised smiles and tears. Perfect. And her final scene with Paddy Navin was superb.
Last, but not least, Ann Firbank as Rebecca Nurse. She brought tears to my eyes. Gentle, pragmatic, noble to the end; such steel and vulnerability. She will not confess to save her soul; her slightness was the perfect contrast to Armitage’s bear like Proctor in the final scenes. Utterly fantastic.
All the male cast were flawless. William Gaunt’s Giles Corey was the perfect mix of vulnerability and dark humour; bewildered old man one moment and beleaguered and anguished husband the next. His delivery of Miller’s one liners broke the tension and gave small lights in the overwhelming darkness of the play. Paternalistic to John Proctor, his tenderness towards Proctor was sharply touching.
Jack Ellis’ Governor Danforth was utterly bombastic, and communicated the fear of a loss of reputation perfectly. This was a character driven by religious zeal, and utterly unafraid of anything except public disgrace. The indisputable baddie of the piece, he kept the momentum of fear and paranoia going throughout. His impressive height, he’s almost as tall as Richard Armitage, gives Danforth a real presence, makes him a tangible threat from the moment he walks onstage.
Adrian Schiller’s Reverend Hale was perfectly pitched. He got the nuances of Hale’s position perfectly; the minister who believes in God, but finds himself torn between his God and the virtues of man. Schiller’s portrayal of Hale’s physical and mental decline was pitch perfect; from the moment he meets the Proctors the audience can see his conflict; sense that this is a man who knows in his heart what is right, but is bound by doctrine to compel the parishioners to lie. His eventual decline and fall is as powerful as that which eventually takes Proctor. I spoke briefly to Adrian in the bar after the play, and he seems really lovely!
Michael Thomas’ Rev. Parris contrasts perfectly as the outwardly avaricious, inwardly insecure pastor of the town, who only too late realises the game is up and that humanity is more important than perceived godliness. His defence of Abigail is done purely on the basis of reputation; it is clear he has no love for his niece, and, even at the end of the play, as he implores Elizabeth Proctor to keep trying to convince her husband to repent, he never quite understands the choice Proctor has made.
Harry Atwell’s performance as Thomas Puttnam was superb; capturing the small minded, provincial, superstitious mindset to a tee. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him twitching net curtains! His ability to act far older than his years, and his creeping body language imbued Puttnam with a repulsive suburbanness that was utterly fantastic to behold. I saw him come out of the theatre afterwards, and for a second I was genuinely shocked at how young he is!
And finally, to Richard Armitage. Physically, he’s a strange mix. Tall, certainly, and broad, but I think he’s lost a bit of weight since the start of the play’s run, as he looks almost gangly after about eight weeks, twice a day doing Proctor. Yes, he stripped to the waist at the start of act two, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me draw the odd breath or two, but what struck me the most about seeing him like that was his vulnerability; he’s not the super-buff John ‘Strike Back’ Porter, but a more physically frail man right now. And yes, I did just want to cuddle him and make it all go away!
There’s absolutely no doubting his powerful stage presence; he walks in, you can’t look anywhere else. And yet, he has that unique gift; he is at once a leading man and also an ensemble player. The strength of that cast, and his implicit and instinctive understanding that his role is both dominant and subordinate means that his presence never distracts from when the audience is supposed to be looking at someone else. His scenes with Samantha Colley were at once threatening and desperate, and with Anna Madeley he played the regretful husband so truthfully I forgot I was watching actors. The scenes with Jack Ellis were electrifying, especially the final confessional scenes, where he’s so, so broken, but still holding onto his principles. And the scenes with William Gaunt were the most gorgeous mix of comedy and pathos.
The way he moves across the stage was something that really caught my eye. He’s lightfooted and agile, and for a man that tall and broad, that takes some doing! He has a grace where necessary, and a brutality where it’s important. Volcanic seems an apt word. His speeches were delivered with a passion, in a voice that might be a tad more raspy now than at the start of the run, but only added to Proctor’s tragedy. He’s the kind of actor who makes you believe, totally, that he is the character. There was no trace of Guy of Gisborne, Lucas, or John Thornton here; he was all Proctor.
A couple of moments that caught my eye and made me smile; firstly, Proctor tasting the broth that Elizabeth had left on the table at the start of Act 2. I couldn’t really not notice this one, as it was performed right in front of me, sat, as I was, in the front row! Proctor leans into the pot, tastes, thinks, grabs a pinch of salt and adds it, then tastes again. It’s a moment of gentle comedy that gives much needed light relief, and Yael Farber has sprinkled these throughout the course of the play to lighten the otherwise very dark mood. When, while sat at the dinner table, Proctor says to Elizabeth the broth is ‘well seasoned’, the audience can’t help but laugh again.
The last scene of the play will stay with me for a while, physically and mentally. We see a broken Proctor, facing off an immaculately presented Danforth over the question of Proctor’s confession. Jack Ellis and Richard Armitage are very well matched in terms of physicality, both being tall, broad and lean, and every scene between those two had an almost unbearable tension. The class divide, and the battle, literally, over a man’s soul was played perfectly, both of them spitting antagonism into every line, gesture and facial expression.
It was truly fascinating to see this play ‘up close and personal’, sat, as we were, on the stage itself. And I did spend a lot of time studying Richard, as anyone who has a soft spot for him would, I think! He’s certainly a presence, but not, as he said of himself recently, a frightening one. Imposing, yes, charismatic, definitely, but little things, like the curve of his back, the vulnerability of his wrists, the ever so slightly receding hairline, that beautiful, aquiline profile and expressive eyes, those endless legs and the suggestion, at the moment, that he could really do with a few home cooked meals (Mummy Armitage, please send some down, post haste!) made watching him a real pleasure, and an emotional experience. It’s the sadness of his bearing as Proctor, and yes, I know that’s artifice, but you can’t help but wonder how much of John Proctor got under his skin and fused with Richard to play this.
Post show, having sent The Husband to the Pit Bar, (where he was tickled to see a few of the actresses drinking Famous Grouse whiskey and unwinding!) I did get Richard’s autograph, and for that I was so grateful – how he can steel himself every night and get out there to the Stage Door is beyond me. The line of well wishers was mostly calm and respectful, bar one slightly overwrought exception (not me!), and, to be honest, I think we should all be bloody grateful he comes out at all, given the performance he gives for nigh-on four hours twice a day. He wasn’t posing for photos on Wednesday, but actually, I’m not disappointed at all about that – it was more than enough to stand next to him and get his autograph, and more than I expected! The pure pleasure, for me, was in being a part of the performance, and for that alone it was money well spent. I didn’t feel like I needed a long chat with him afterwards; an autographed programme and a chance to say thank you was more than enough. He was very quiet and subdued, and wasn’t speaking except to say thank you, which was completely understandable. I thanked him for the show, told him it was breathtaking, and as he signed, he said ‘Thank you so much,’ which was enough for me. We shouldn’t ask for more when he’s not got the will to give it.
Oh, and my final souvenir? Naughty, perhaps, but I know people have been doing this – I got half of John Proctor’s written confession, the half with Richard’s scrawled ‘JP’ on it, complete with fake blood. Well, it was three feet away from me on the floor at the end, and I gave it a minute or two to see if anyone else was going to (someone did pick up the other half before me, but I got the signed bit!!). That’s going to come in very handy for school, and also look lovely in a frame next to the tickets ;).
All in all, a wonderful, visceral night, and I loved every single minute. If you can, please, treat yourself and see it!