[Events have overtaken me. Is there any point in in-depth re-analysis when the play will be released via download later??? Alrighty, this is just for me, then…]
Have you ever watched a theatre production – the same play, with the same ensemble, in the same performance space – twice? No, no one does that. We may go to the cinema to watch a film more than once – something I used to do frequently as a teenager (“Cocktail” five times – yeah, I know…) but with steep ticket prices in mind, a theatre play is not something that you would consider watching twice. And what a pity that is because a play is never the same. It changes with every performance, with a new set of audience members, with a different seat, with a different mood that you as the audience may have.
Thanks to a front row seat, stage right (C18), the experience of the play was immediate, and raw, and not just because Mr A was a meter away from me, so close, in fact, that I could count the individual hairs on his chest
which I did my best to ignore but sadly failed, once or twice. The “theatre in the round” looks much rounder when you are seated in the front row. The front row essentially *is* the boundary of the crucible, but as such the audience seated there becomes part of the play. From passive watchers the front row attendees are transformed into members of the Salem community. While still unable to react openly, the village dwellers viewers are silent witnesses and as such implicated in the tragedy. This is occasionally brought to light, literally, when the stage illumination spills onto the front row seats and the viewers/witnesses are put on the spot – especially during the court scenes, but also to some degree in Act 1 in Betty Parriss’s room. I do not think this was coincidence in the light design as the more intimate scene in the Proctor house initially leaves the audience in the dark, excluding them from the action and making them passive onlookers, but then gradually draws them in as the scene changes from the dark intimate exchange of the Proctors to the unexpected call of Rev Hale, the visit by Corey and Nurse and finally the entry of Cheever and the marshal, at which point the stage is lit almost back to full brightness and the audience has once again become complicit in the proliferating hysteria of the witch hunt. The whole design is so subtle and yet so effective. You gradually recognise the shape of people across the stage, and you feel a sense of distrust and disgust at the passivity with which they/we allow the tragedy to progress.
Furthermore, audience involvement becomes almost active as the action occasionally happens right at your feet. Proctor chasing Abby through the room is frightening, the speed and sound of the running are shockingly fast and loud, as is the movement of the girls across the stage in the court scene until they finally settle in the stage right corner, huddled up. There were several occasions where I had to quickly react and move my feet out of the way. As incidental as it sounds – the audience’s physical moving out of the way is an active involvement. Once again our participation in the proceedings is made clear: We are there, we are witnesses because the action is happening so close that we have to physically react and move. But that is also exactly the point: We move out of the way, remove ourselves from the action and choose to remain passive (ok, that is a reaction that is prescribed by the conventions of theatre-going, but it fits the theme of the play perfectly and is an incidental way of involving the audience in the action of the play.) If the community had not sat back in passive fear, the tragedy could have been stopped. And yet we sit and do nothing. We tuck in our feet and keep our heads low. Infuriating cowardice!
The proximity to the action and the occasional awareness of being visible to the rest of the audience due to the lighting and own movement of feet was unsettling, and rightly so. The play’s theme *is* unsettling. Sitting in the front row did not unsettle me in terms of vanity or shyness (I may suffer from the former but less from the latter.) But the actors had my full attention, much more so than the first time ’round when I watched from the second row where I was occasionally busy craning my neck around the people in front of me and missed bits and pieces. I completely forgot that Mr Armitage was there. My attention was taken by whoever was acting in any given moment. The fast propelling action entranced me so much that I felt tense, under strain, unable to take my eyes away from the action. At the end of Act 2 I was hunched in on myself and was shaking as I got up during the interval, my muscles in spasm. I also cried several times during Act 2 (silently sniffling into my hanky, trying to be unobtrusive there…)
Was it because I was able to observe the nuances of the acting closer from my front row seat, but RA’s performance seemed better than the first one I saw, and seeing the play from the side gave me a completely new perspective. The
infamous shirtless scene appealed to me much more from my vantage point from the side: With most of the sexual markers (biceps, beard, chest, abdomen) out of view, I saw the exhausted human being coming home from work and cleaning himself from the toils. The white expanse of the back stood out against the dark floor, and the round lines of back and sides had less sexual but more aesthetic appeal. Essentially I could now concentrate on the meaning of this direction: The fragility of Proctor is alluded to for the first time. After his bullish, enraged and energetic stomping around in Act 2, he is suddenly a frail individual, bowed down by physical toil and mental turmoil. He is catching his breath, half-naked and static, an admission of vulnerability that is in stark contrast to his strong physicality while clothed and moving. I can now understand why this scene was included – and in this way. I do not believe for one minute that Yael Farber needs any gratuitous Armitage totty moment to sustain interest in her production of the play. But she gives us half-naked *Proctor* (!) to show his vulnerability. She actually avoids the drool-reaction by having Elizabeth Proctor place the bowl and pitcher on the floor. Logically and realistically the washing bowl should be on the table, with Proctor standing up, in plain view. Instead he hunches at the front of the stage, bowing over the bowl, concealing his torso during his ablutions, and really only showing his head, neck and back. Armitage emphasised it by remaining bowed over the bowl. An insight that I was only able to gain because I saw the play a second time, and from a different perspective. In this scene Armitage actually proved that what he once said is true: You can act with your back. (Ok, I think he was referring to smouldering with your back, but well, as we know that is an act, too.) There were no words (only muffled gasps) and sparse movement, but the stillness and pose of the body, as well as the visible tension in the muscles spoke of the pressure that Proctor felt under. Physical theatre is indeed Armitage’s domain – and maybe more so than acting with the spoken word. His body acting was flawless – believable, measured exactly to the intensity of feeling that was conveyed in the words, controlled and evocative.
The homely (!) scene between the Proctors remained my favourite part, especially the softness with which Proctor was trying to show his love and regret to his wife. He spoke so softly, tentatively, with so much hope and fear in his voice. And conscious of the stiffness of his wife nonetheless attempting to kiss her. The body control of both actors in this quiet scene was remarkable – a hunched shoulder by Madeley could have completely misinterpreted Elizabeth Proctor as resigned rather than heart-broken. And a more forceful attempt at reaching out to his wife might have made Proctor appear rash rather than carefully hopeful. But they interpreted the scene perfectly. More Armitage back-acting came at the end of Act 1 after Elizabeth has been taken away and Proctor collapses at the table. Despair and guilt spoke from the hunched pose, hiding his face, sobbing. I only realized then that Proctor had just understood that ultimately he was responsible for his wife’s prosecution, and that he was so forcefully reassuring her that he would “fall like an ocean on that court” not just out of love but also for guilt. (What a beautiful turn of phrase, btw.)
My initial verdicts of the play remained unchanged. The sound scape still does nothing for me and continues to irritate me: I still don’t see why an atmospheric set, an outstanding cast and the flawless direction need a score to emphasize the intended reactions and message. This is not a reaction to the music itself, btw. Hammarton’s music is hauntingly evocative. It is simply superfluous imho. The ensemble is exceptionally capable and complements each other wonderfully. Schiller, Gavin and Madeley were outstanding. Again I was taken with the light design (see above *ggg*), but a bit less so with some of the choreography. The much remarked upon courtroom scene where the girls turn on Mary Warren just appeared totally OTT to me. I found the choreographed movements of the girls over-coordinated. They move in sync, shaking their hair, twisting and writhing. Within the context of the scene they are pretending that Mary has sent her spirit to haunt and torture them. So far so good, however, for a spontaneous reaction to Mary’s “betrayal”, they act too coordinated. How could they have copped on so quickly to contort themselves in unison as a way of bullying Mary and beating her into submission? A bit less might have been more.
To my surprise my second viewing of TC ended without standing ovations! Sitting on my own I had chatted with the couple on my left as well as the single, middle-aged+ woman on my right, and all of us had agreed in the interval that the acting was marvellous and the staging exceptional. Was the Wednesday night crowd eager to get out and on the tube? The performance merited standing ovations. However, we were graced with another small performance. As Armitage had turned to leave the stage, a young woman in the front row suddenly dashed after Armitage right across the stage. No match for the security guys, though. She was caught before she could reach Armitage. (I wonder whether he noticed it at all.) Amusingly, a noticeable collective snigger went through the theatre. The woman on my right and I smirked at each other. When I said “Well, didn’t we all feel like doing that?” she giggled and nodded.
The first review is here.