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|Richard Armitage In Conversation|
Update 22 March 2015: Richard Armitage in Conversation can now be purchased from Digital Theatre in its entirety to rent or download. Click here.
Tuesday 2nd September 2014 5.00 - 5.45pm
The following account of the 'Conversation' between theatre critic Matt Wolf and Richard Armitage is from memory, assisted by the twitter feed of the Old Vic Theatre, which reminded me of the questions and answers given. I did not make notes during the interview as I wanted to be able to pay attention, so my recall of Richard's answers will be sketchy and I will be paraphrasing the gist of what was said. Italics appear when I'm not at all clear exactly how the answer was given.
Edit: thank you to all those who have emailed me with further details to remind me what was said during the Conversation. I have edited the account below and also added some general bullet points below to record other things he said. Please read the article by FilmandTVNow for exact phrases from Richard.
The interview was filmed (two cameras were setup pointing solely at Richard from the front row stage right) but no word has been given on how much of the interview will be released and when. The production of The Crucible is in the round and the event was sold out. Seats at the back of the stage were not occupied but seats to the side of the stage were full. The interviewer sat on the left and Richard on the right as you look at the stage from the front. Richard referred to the text of The Crucible which was on the table in between them on one occasion, and also read from a letter sent to him from someone who spoke about living in Berlin when the wall divided the city.
I know some of you like these details so...Richard was wearing a black suit jacket, white shirt (no tie) and black 'motorcyle design' trousers - it might have been the Empire Awards suit jacket or the Andrew Marr interview suit jacket. He was wearing the shoes he wore to Anderson Live (I think). I have no recollection what Matt Wolf was wearing...!
Richard and Matt appeared unannounced, and taking us a little by surprise, from Upstage Right (i.e. the way that actors look at the audience).
Mr Wolf welcomed us and introduced himself as a 'theatre critic' and mentioned that he saw the play when it was in previews back in June.
MW: How has the production progressed since the first preview?
RA: It's hard to know as we have gone along together, but we have definitely gone much deeper into the play. You cannot really tell when you're a part of it every day, it is like watching children grow up or losing weight. I was too close to it to really notice it. Only by stepping away from it could one see the changes.
Richard talked early on in the interview about being surprised when he read in the Daily Mail that he hadn't been on the stage for 13 years. He joked that he thought it was only 5 and was surprised it was that long.
Matt asks a question about how Yael Farber works as a director. Richard answers that she says she wants the play to be visceral and he jokes that he needed to look that word up! But it means acting the emotion in your body not in your head. It is a physical manifestation. When my wife is taken in the play, I feel it in my knees, in my stomach and in my bowels, not in my head.
MW: How did you come to the decision to take the role? How did the conversation come up, was it The Crucible, the Old Vic Yael Farber, do you want the role of John Proctor?
RA: (laughs) kinda like that. I was working on an independent film in the north of England and Yael came to visit me. We had a breakfast meeting and I was exhausted and she was really tired. We talked about it and I said I didn't know if I could do it, if I was able to play the role. She said we will go on the journey together and we will go to the edge together. It was a combination of things: the right time, theatre, director, configuration. We really wanted to make an event, which I think it has been.
I think Richard talked here about playing the role in drama school. Four different people took the part of John Proctor in each act and Richard had the role for the final act, so he knew that part of the character's journey really well. He said he was also in Pericles there, in the round, which he remembers performing on sand.
Richard read from the text of The Crucible, reading the first time Miller describes Proctor:
'Proctor was a farmer in his middle thirties. he need not have been a partisan of any faction in the town, but there is evidence to suggest that he had a sharp and biting way with hypocrites. He was the kind of man -powerful of body, even-tempered, and not easily led - who cannot refuse support to partisans without drawing their deepest resentment. In Proctor's presence a fool felt his foolishness instantly - and a Proctor is always marked for calumny therefore.'
This description stayed with Richard and gave added meaning to how he wanted Proctor to appear physically. Stoic, imposing, resolute...? He also mentioned that John Proctor did not suffer fools gladly and that he felt like a fool in front of John Proctor.
He also talked about performing Act 4 in drama school and said that you know you've done something different when nobody says anything when you're finished. His drama teachers didn't say anything so he knew that they had seen him do something he hadn't achieved with his acting before.
MW: What was it like already having the play as part of your repertoire having studied it at drama school?
RA: It was a chance to go deeper into the role. Meeting with Yael, I said the part makes me want to burn the flesh from my body and I don't know if I can do it. Yael said we would go into it and explore it together.
MW: How did you go about finding your voice for this production of The Crucible?
RA: He mentioned at some point during the evening about having a conversation with his agent every year about going back on stage - possibly at this point. I follow Alexander Technique. When I planned to go back to the theatre 10 years ago I worked with an associate of the Globe theatre Glynn MacDonald and then when I got this part I rang her up and said remember that conversation we had 10 years ago about the theatre - she replied yes darling - come and lie on my bed. I worked on Proctor's voice trying to find exactly how it should sound. I wanted Proctor's voice to be the kind that would be able to call his animals in from the fields.
MW: What was it about being in the round that was important to you?
RA: It's all I've ever known. Much of my work at drama school was in the round and then (mentions later productions) I was in productions in the round, traverse stage and three stage thrust, so this is what I know. The audience feels much more part of it in the round.
MW: Tell us a bit about what it's like to have the audience so close? Do you find them a distraction, do you find they become a part of the play, do they help/hinder the process? Do you find them distracting (mentions bright clothing I think).
RA: Yael originally thought about giving the front two rows black covers, but that was not manageable. I don't find it distracting. We've only had two incidents with mobile phones and we discussed as a company how we would react, that we would stop and wait. It's not been a problem. I like the fact that audience feel they can really react to what's on stage. You can hear them breathe, gasp, cry and laugh. You can't be distracted but it creates an electric atmosphere.
After mentioning that Yael and the designer originally considered putting backing over the front row seats, he said he doesn't find the audience distracting (unless there's a particularly gaudy colour, for a moment) as he has 23 cast faces on stage to concentrate on.
MW: On matinée days how do you deliver two intense performances?
RA: I thought originally that I would deliver a different performance in the matinee than in the evening performance. I cannot describe what I mean by that, that somehow the performance would be marked in some way, but in fact the play takes you through the journey and you cannot hold back. You try to save energy, but you have to let the play take you over completely and take it step by step. You have to deliver because the play takes you on that journey each time. You have to plan your day, we all warm up together, vocal and physical warm ups, and we take it step by step.
Richard mentions being on the same dressing room level as Giles Corey, Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor. He feels this is fitting because they are his allies in the play and they prepare together. One day Anna (who plays Elizabeth) and Richard were talking about here they go again and Anna said, I'm just going to pick up a chair and bring it on to the stage and we'll see where it goes from there.
He mentions at some point during the interview the extreme stresses of playing the part. In rehearsals, I ended up in a corner of the room quite upset, visually shaking and Yael Farber came over to ask if I was OK. I said I didn't know how I would be able to play such a part every day. I've vomited in act 4, I've passed water in act 4, though nobody has been able to tell. I don't tend to eat too much because it finds it's way back again! He stresses how physically and emotionally draining it is. He is not sure where he finds the energy but the play takes you there.
I do feel run through by the end of a show, but the job's not done, we can still go further. Every performance I look for something new, some word that I've not noticed before, a bit of the play to enhance, to find something that I can do better. There is mention of how he has developed, going from low to high and now he goes from right down there to way up here (using his hands to show how the distance is greater). When I deliver the line about God, I look up and there is a light in the ceiling that I always spot and focus on to help me achieve a kind of ascent.
MW: In a television show and on film you will perform in locations where the action actually took place, or you will be working on sets that imitate the real location. Since you cannot do that in the theatre, did you go to New England to get a feel for Salem and the place of the play?
RA: Yes I did. I went to Salem and visited the area. It allowed me to programme sense memories of places I would never normally see. I saw Proctor's house and other key places and pieces that appear in the play. It felt important. I went to Rebecca Nurse's house and they still have it looking authentic. There is a child's cot in the corner. I took photographs of the child's cot and there was a poppet in the museum.
MW: How do you make John Proctor a 3D character rather than merely a symbol?
RA: They had very hard lives which we needed to connect with. We all had tasks to take on. I had to sharpen an axe for 4 hours. I remember thinking after a few minutes, OK I can sharpen an axe but after several hours I thought, OK I can really sharpen an axe! I worked a couple of days in farms in Massachusetts and had those experiences. I was mucking out cows and clearing up urine for 2 days.
MW: We know that The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthyism but also for right now - what resonances did you find?
RA: I think Miller knew that the play would resonate throughout the ages and that it would continue to be performed. It was relevant then but we are seeing now that it is still very relevant today. I have had letters from people from all over the world who have felt this oppression first hand. I have a letter hear that I received from someone who remembers the Berlin wall (sorry my memory is sketchy on this - something about teachers asking children what do they watch on TV, and having to lie to not admit that they had seen Western TV). I recently received a letter from a boy who is currently living in Gaza. He hasn't seen the play, he's looked up the synopsis on wikipedia and read reviews of the play and reactions to it online. So he wrote to me to tell me how it resonates with him today.
Richard mentions that he reads these letters before each performance as part of his preparation. He referred to the feeling in the US after 9/11, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and the Holocaust and Yael's experiences also shaped the play. Her experiences of growing up in South Africa, mentions of oppression, segretation of the majority by the government.
MW: Did you reference these resonances in rehearsal?
RA: We each used different, personal resonances and experiences in our performances.
MW: Going into the final performances do you feel a sadness? How will you feel on 13th Sept?
RA: I honestly don't know because I'm not there yet, so I can't answer that yet.
MW: After performing such an intense role would you consider a comedy or a musical next?
RA: (laughs) Definitely not a musical! Maybe a comedy, that would be a good alternative. We all put a lot of energy into the play and have bonded as a cast who all continue to give their all in the coming shows.
He mentioned the read through of Aphra Benn's 'The Rover' with the ETT, which he did quite some time ago and that unfortunately did not work out due to schedules, etc.
MW: After such a long run how do you leave John Proctor behind?
RA: It's a strange process trying to leave the character at the end of the night. Washing off the blood at the end of the performance is a big part of it, it feels symbolic. But it is hard to leave him completely as you have to perform again the next night. I go outside to greet people and I haven't quite lost him. I feel bewildered. The voices are hazy and in the distance, but Proctor is still there as I need him tomorrow.
MW: Do you listen to music to help focus you?
RA: I listen to David Darling cello suites, Arvo Pärt, Penderecki. There's also a piece about Hiroshima with lots of violins that sound like screaming. People hear the noise outside my door and don't want to knock!
MW: Do you have a pre-show ritual?
RA: Going to the bathroom is crucial. I do vocal and physical warm ups, I listen to music, read the letters I talked about. I've found myself in a ritual, spending some time alone in the dark to compose and get into character beforehand. Richard said that his pre-show ritual wasn't out of superstition.
MW: After 13 years away from the stage what is it like to renter that discipline?
RA: I don't feel the same kind of fear, I feel adrenaline rising. When I'm under the stage watching the monitor, I hear Betty's scream and I hear the fear in that scream, the fear created propels me into the play.
MW: Question from someone who sent an email. Is there a particular part of the play that you enjoy or you really dread?
RA: He mentions lines that are difficult to say although this may have been earlier. There is a part that I enjoy. After act 1, which is the overture, just like in an opera, setting the themes that will reoccur throughout the play. Then there is the quiet of the beginning of act 2. Two people coming to terms with a fractured relationship, the quiet of that moment, it's like the start of something building and I enjoy that quiet moment as they try and work out their relationship.
In one matinee, a piece of carrot was stuck in my throat and I had to try and choke my way through the rest of that scene. At the stage door afterwards, people were concerned for my voice and I received lots of throat sweets and honey.
MW: How has this part changed you?
RA: I'm sorry this answer is going to be very disappointing answer to this question but I just don't know how it's going to affect me. 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.
This ending was quite simply put and generated spontaneous applause.
Thank you Richard for this interview. It was a privilege to be there.
Other points that have been mentioned by visitors to the site to remind me what else he said:
Thank you UKExpat, Jwah, JH, Smithylass and Jen.
For an excellent article about the Conversation, including transcription of specific parts of Richard's interview, read FilmandTVNow's article.