EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Hobbit Star Richard Armitage on the Digital Theatre Release of The Crucible

Armitage played John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s drama when it ran at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2014.

In the summer of 2014, South African director Yaël Farber became the toast of London with her revelatory revival of Arthur Miller's seminal drama The Crucible for the Old Vic Theatre. Staged in the round, with the scent of incense filling the auditorium, Farber's three-and-a-half-hour production starred the stage and screen actor Richard Armitage as John Proctor, Miller's tragic hero, whose extramarital love affair with a young woman leads to the deaths of several people amid the Witch Trials of 1692 Salem.

For Armitage, whose screen roles include Thorin Oakenshield, King under the Mountain, in Peter Jackson's Hobbit film trilogy, and an upcoming six-episode arc as Francis Dolarhyde, a serial killer known as The Tooth Fairy, on the television series Hannibal, it was an experience that pushed him to his limits, both as a person and as an actor. And now, more people will get to see it.

Digital Theatre, the U.K.-based organization that partners with leading West End theater companies to capture live performances for screen broadcast, has added The Crucible to its collection, and it will be available for download starting March 17 at 9am (EST). On a break from shooting an episode of Hannibal in Toronto, TheaterMania caught up with Armitage to discuss the release and his experiences during the filming of a live stage show.

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in Yaël Farber's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible at the Old Vic Theatre in London.
Richard Armitage as John Proctor in Yaël Farber's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible at the Old Vic Theatre in London.
(© Johan Persson)

Can you describe the production from your perspective?
Yaël describes her work as "visceral." She's into not making an audience feel uncomfortable, but she likes to drag them forward in their seats. The theater was in the round and she worked hard to conceal the beauty of the Old Vic. She covered the theater with cloth so there were no distractions in the room. It was quite a stark, austere look, even down to the women's costumes. They were trussed up to the neck. It revealed the beauty of the face and actually removed any sort of sensual or sexuality, which was reflective of that tough Puritan existence. It had a very abrasive feel to it. There was burning incense [live onstage]. Sound was very present. There was a pitch that the composer found that could make the seats vibrate with what they call a sonic pulse. I feel like the play had an accusatory feel to it.

What was your first thought when you heard that The Crucible would be filmed for Digital Theatre?
I was hesitant, actually. I wasn't that familiar with Digital Theatre's work. It was late in the run when the decision was made. We had nine five-star reviews and were full every night. There was such an urge for people to see it, [who] couldn't see it. I was very pleased that it would have an afterlife. One of the conditions I had in allowing it to be filmed was that Yaël be part of the edit, because what she was seeing, and what she wanted the audience to be seeing, was very specific. She storyboarded the entire play, so her presence in the filming of it is very acute.

What was the filming process like?
It was simple for us. It was shot over three nights with six or eight cameras in the theater in different positions. Luckily, because the play was in the round, it was easy to get the reverses in certain shots, and you could cross-shoot across the stage. The only difficulty was that we were wearing radio mics and it was difficult for me, because there's a part where my character is washing and to conceal a mic on a bare torso is virtually impossible. We didn't want to put it on clothing. Those technical things were tricky. I was conscious that the audience would be aware of the filming, but of course they weren't. It was very sensitively approached.

How was it to finally watch it?
I had my arm twisted into watching it in a movie theater, because I really didn't want to see it. I'm glad I did. They did a good job. One of the things that surprised me was how much my face had changed from the first day of rehearsal to that point twelve weeks into a run. My face had become weary and weighed down with his troubles. All of the triggers I found during the run were retriggering me in the cinema. It was like a catharsis going through it.

How exhausting was it to perform eight times a week?
It's hard to describe to people how long the play is. But you're so invested in the trajectory of the story that the three and a half hours seems to disappear. I think it was probably one the most exhausting things I've done. I didn't drink a drop of alcohol. I trained every day at the gym. I had to have vocal massage twice a week and try to keep myself hydrated and not get sick. It was so taxing on the voice and the body there wasn't room for anything but one hundred percent health. I couldn't take a night off. I never had that responsibility before. It was a great challenge that really drove me to a different place. There was never a point when I was relaxed onstage. I was always grasping for that last moment of energy. I think the audience enjoyed that kind of danger sport.

Given how successful it was in London, is a New York production in the cards?
Oh, of course. I would desperately love to take it to New York, which is where I live now. I don't think we can do it in New York for a while. I think the rights are held by another party, so you might see another production of The Crucible at some point in the next couple of years, but it won't be ours. Too bad.

But it's on film, so that's even better.
Absolutely. That's the good thing. I know that there's a lot of people [who] want to see it, so they'll be able to download it, which is good.

Richard Armitage as John Proctor and Anna Madeley in the Old Vic Theatre production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, directed by Yaël Farber.
Richard Armitage with Anna Madeley in the Old Vic Theatre production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, directed by Yaël Farber.
(© Johan Persson)

Click here for more information on the Digital Theatre release of The Crucible.