From middle-earth to Arthur Miller

Thanks to The Hobbit, there would be few New Zealanders who haven't heard of British actor Richard Armitage, who played dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield in the hit trilogy.

Most recently he was the lead in the American disaster movie Into the Storm. But now we get to see a different side to the 43-year-old - and one that's a reminder of Armitage's acting chops.

He stars as John Proctor in Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible, about the notorious Salem witch trials. But unlike previous filmed versions, including the 1996 adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder - what we see on screen is a performance of the stage play itself.

The performance was near the end of a season at The Old Vic theatre in London last year, but one filmed specifically to be shown in cinemas as part of the popular CinemaLive series, which has previously included opera and popular music.

Armitage, recently in China with Sir Peter Jackson promoting the release there of The Battle of the Five Armies, says it wasn't easy returning to the stage. For one, his last stage performance was 12 years ago with the Royal Shakespeare Company for The Duchess of Malfi.

"I knew that with my face on the poster and name alongside Arthur Miller, I wouldn't be able to get sick, relax or have a bad night," he jokes. "But those thoughts faded into the back of my mind once we got into the rehearsal room. My only thoughts were for Miller, Proctor and [director Yael] Farber. It's the one thing I know about my work, that when you allow the character to take you into the world, which is rich and detailed, one really does leave oneself behind."

Armitage had studied The Crucible about 20 years ago while a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, "so I knew how this character might resonate with me". He was also a fan of the Daniel Day-Lewis performance "but I deliberately didn't revisit that work".

He says for his Proctor the vocal discipline was the biggest challenge. "But that's technique; I still train my voice, even for film and TV, but a 3 1/2-hour play on the scale of Miller's Crucible is like nothing I've encountered before."

By the time he started preparing for The Crucible he had also wrapped up commitments for The Hobbit shoot. "The Hobbit was a dim and distant sweet memory, there was still a great deal of promoting to do for that film, and also Into the Storm was opening, so there were three weekends when I had to do a 24-hour dash to Anaheim, Vegas and New York. That was tricky, but all part of the job."

In The Crucible, Proctor is a farmer who, one year before the events in the play, had a secret affair with the young Abigail Williams. Proctor now finds himself questioning Williams, who is the ringleader of a group of girls suspected of witchcraft.

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Armitage says he and Farber, an award-winning director and playwright, were in accordance in how to find a way into the character of Proctor. For one, it was a very physical experience.

"It's flesh and blood, not thinking and books," he says.

"Don't get me wrong - I had a mountain of books that I'm still reading, but I found Proctor in a room on my feet, and sometimes on my knees. I found him through the text, but like music, words reverberate through the mind, memory or imagination, and into the body. That body was a farmer, a husband, a lover, a father, a master and a prisoner."

Armitage says the more he explored Proctor, the more the character surprised him. "So many things . . . his fall, his descent, the more solid and alpha he became in the early process, the greater potential there was for collapse, and the biggest surprise and challenge was the 'heave' to raise him from the bottom of that pit of despair to something almost metaphysical in the final moments of the play. There were moments when, in yielding to the character, I was 'tumbled in the waves'. Proctor was far greater than I, and his ascent was far greater."

As to the play's length, Armitage says Farber took Miller's advice and "grabbed the audience by the throat".

"I like that no one was permitted to relax. There wasn't really an option to 'pace' [yourself]. Sometimes we were all so exhausted especially at the eighth show of the week, but the play had a momentum that was undeniable. Act 3 always terrified me.

"The energy needed to push through to the crescendo of the hysteria in the courtroom was always a challenge."

Armitage is also aware of the enduring popularity of The Crucible since it was first staged 62 years ago as an allegory to McCarthyism. But he says it's almost impossible to explain why it remains popular without writing a thesis.

"I think it's his most elusive.

"[But] for any nation or people who have or are feeling the weight of authoritarian suppression, a culture where religious beliefs can create legislation to exclude, condemn or censor, or more broadly any person who has somehow been 'othered' by his own society and punished for that 'otherness', then this play means something.

"Tragically I don't think we have to look too far to find examples of this."

For more information, screening locations, and dates to to www.thecrucibleonscreen.com

 - The Dominion Post

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