Plays are written to be performed before an audience, and not necessarily just read from the page. As an English lit major, I’ve read many more plays than I’ve seen, and when I’ve seen plays I’ve also read, I always marvel at how the work comes alive on stage. Yet, I equally enjoy parsing through the text, because I believe that the best writers make every sentence count -everything means something and has a specific purpose in furthering the theme, the character, the mood or the plot. I think Shakespeare is a great example of this. I find something new every time I re-read a play, but then when I see some director’s interpretation of it, I see how the bare words can be shaped into another, different vision.
I’ve mentioned before that I’d never seen The Crucible live, despite many opportunities. I saw the film after I learned Richard Armitage would play Proctor, ( I think it worth a discussion on the film alone at some point, as Arthur Miller wrote the screenplay), and I listened to an audible play. And of course, I reread it a number of times. So, I cannot write about the film by comparing it to the live production. Instead, most of my comparisons will be with the text itself.
Watching Yaël Farber’s version of The Crucible, even on screen, gave me more clarity than I had before, even though I knew the words so well. The three sharpest instances of this for me were the scenes with the girls, especially in Act I when Abigail, (Samantha Colley) aggressively, even violently, intimidates, threatens and bullies the other girls into submission and fear, almost all the scenes with Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin), who, on the page, is not as simpering and cowering as she was on stage, and the complete, physically disintegration of Reverend Hale, (Adrian Schiller) who starts out in the play tightly buttoned up – literally, in his high buttoned coat, and ends up, in Act IV looking almost as a prisoner as did Proctor – with his open shirt, disheveled hair and haunted visage.
Having said that, my original and long-held opinion of the play, and some of the crucial decisions made by the characters, especially, Danforth, Elizabeth and John Proctor, have not changed. But more of that a little further below.
As I felt when reading the play, Act I, while long and a little tedious, was brilliant in carefully setting up and out the milieu, the problems in Salem society and the factions that push the play on. In some ways, I think it the most brilliant of all the Acts for its success as providing a foundation for most of what comes next ( excluding the Proctor/Elizabeth relationship and the authority of the court). From the get go, the audience can knows the characters of Parris, Abigail and Rebecca Nurse. It’s made clear that citizens have grievances against one another and their minister, that this has gone on for a while, that there is a true belief in the Devil and witchcraft, and of course, the history of John and Abigail. I think it a perfect Act I, for so successfully fulfilling its obligation as the first act.
I drooled a little watching the scene between Proctor and Abigail, finding the staging sexual and a little violent, in a hot way. When Abigail presses her palms on Proctor’s thighs, when they get up to one another nose to nose, when he whips her around and slams on on the table in what has to be seen as a reenactment of “from the rear,” when Proctor, making his escape from the other side of the stage but they come together again, I was entranced. Though, I didn’t find much chemistry between Armitage and Colley, and I’m more impressed by Colley’s movements than her acting.
It was always my opinion that Abigail had as strong hand in either seducing or going along with Proctor’s seduction, that he still had sexual feelings for her ( as both Abigail and Elizabeth smartly note). What seeing it live changed for me, was Proctor’s ambivalence and shame. The certainty that she still “stirs him” to borrow a term from Guy of Gisborne, and that he has, indeed been looking up at her window, that she saw something in his face when Elizabeth put her out on the high road, It doesn’t come through on the page as it does on screen. The words alone ( unless one reads the stage notes) leave room for doubt as to where the two currently stand. The action doesn’t.
Act II held some surprises for me because it fleshed out John Proctor’s personal character. For example, when he tasted the unseasoned rabbit stew and decided to salt it. He wasn’t just “displeased” as the program notes read, he seemed disgusted and angry. I’d often read this as amusing, especially after he tells her it’s a well-seasoned dish, but this production showed something different. To me, his displeasure, or some emotion anyway, was also evident when he notices the flour left on the table, from where his wife had earlier been kneading bread. I wonder whether the significance of this stage direction was intended to indicate his displeasure that she had not adequately cleaned up after herself and what that signaled to him.
Elizabeth’s coldness towards her husband is much clearer on screen than it is in the play. In fact, everything about Anna Madeley’s Elizabeth is cold and forbidding, from her angular face, to her halting style of speech at times and her frail, invalid movements.
Proctor, as a person, comes through the live version, at least this one, with characteristics I’d not paid much attention to before. In addition to the shame, sin and self-disgust that illuminates the page, on stage, in Act II, there’s a certain naiveté or simplicity that I find in sharp contrast to Elizabeth’s more realistic and politically savvy assessment of their current situation. Elizabeth understands more about Proctor than he does himself. Elizabeth is more in tune with what’s happening in the community, the risks and dangers, and the inevitability of what Abigail is about. I don’t believe her when she says that she’s not judging her husband, but he is judging himself.
Elizabeth is shrewd and calculating:Proctor is not. And I maintain my original opinion that her shrewdness extends itself to her actions later in Act III when she lies in court, and in Act IV when she refuses to convince him to save himself.
Despite Proctor’s lyrical dialogue about the beauty of Massachusetts in the spring ( lilacs are a particular favorite of mine), and his statements that he aims to please Elizabeth, along with her reassurance that she knows he does, I have never and still don’t see love in this marriage. I see partnership, commitment to the marriage, to the team, to the family -I see respect, but I don’t see the passion or romance that a more perfect marriage should include. What it was “before Abigail,” I cannot say for sure, but I think Elizabeth tells us some of this in Act IV when she tried to explain her coldness to her husband as he is minutes away from the rope.
On the page, when John verbally attacks Elizabeth for her cold, pious and unforgiving nature, when he recounts how over 7 months he has tried everything to win back her trust, it has always come struck me as a sort of pleading, explanatory speech. But in this production, he’s angry and accusatory, calling on his full power as husband and head of the family to bend her into submission. ” I cheated, I’m sorry, get over it.” And yet, he continues to lie to her, cover up, omit – all of which she knows. I find little sympathy for John Proctor in this scene, and more brutishness than on the written page.
I thought the part of this act when he chases Mary Warren around the room with a whip was poorly done, and almost comical. Perhaps it was so intended. Other than that, I think Natalie Gavin’s performance throughout is stellar.
In general, except for his speech about the beauty around him, I preferred Richard Armitage’s performance in this Act when he was soft, hesitant and conciliatory over the parts when he was angry, powerful and demanding. I preferred his non-verbal acting to his dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, I know there were a number of theater-goers and reviewers who commented that he shouted too much and sometimes was not understood. I know this was filmed at the end of the run when his voice was probably at it’s most stressed – but I found that in a few instances – only a few, that his diction was imperfect – in at least two scenes I thought I detected a lisp, ( maybe dry-mouth? I wrote down the exact dialogue, but misplaced it, however I think it was something he said to Mary Warren when she returned from court.) and his sentence about a five legged dragon was unintelligible. This could be because of the acoustics, but no other actor seemed to have this problem, and although Armitage’s voice is at such a low register that his words may get muffled, Adrian Schiller also has a low voice, and I didn’t notice these problems.
To be continued.