By Chris Harvey5:00PM BST 25 Jun 2014
Richard Armitage arrives in the tiny, cluttered stage manager’s office of The Old Vic straight from rehearsals for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He’s bearded and dressed in thick shapeless trousers, heavy boots, and a rough collarless cotton shirt open at the neck to reveal a broad chest. He’s a tall and imposing physical presence. Anyone who knew the 42 year-old only as the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit films might have quite a shock. Television viewers who associate him with double agent Lucas North in Spooks, nasty Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood, or the character based on SAS man Andy McNab in Sky One’s Strike Back would know different.
This role is a departure. Armitage is to play the tormented John Proctor in the playwright’s terrifying account of the 17th century Salem witch trials, in which Proctor’s adulterous relationship with a young woman sparks a vengeful chain of events that leads to the deaths of many.
He says he feels like he has been waiting for it all his life. “It’s such an epic role. It feels as big as Lear to me in terms of what that man goes through.”
The Crucible is an unfolding nightmare of accusatory spite that is seen as an allegory of the anti-Communist witch trials in Hollywood in the 1950s. Can it escape that allegory and find another, I ask him.
“It’s ultimately a timeless play, I think,” says Armitage. “It has lines that feel relevant in 1692, relevant in the Fifties, relevant today and relevant tomorrow, in 10 years, in 20 years, while we’re still destroying each other in the way that we do, in that insidious human way.”
He promises that acclaimed director Yael Farber’s production will be a full-blooded affair. “You can’t play this story without addressing sexuality in this particular society in this time, the masculinity of the men, the femininity of the women, the vulnerability of prepubescent girls. Yael is cooking something which at the moment feels like it’s - and should be - too hot to handle.”
Armitage is a noticeably calm presence but he talks with passion. I ask him how it feels to be facing The Crucible’s agonising climax over and over for the next couple of months. “It’s a big mountain to climb every night,” he says. “There’s a shattering of the character, and almost a reassembling of him towards the end.
“I leave the rehearsal room – and I carry him with me, I carry his thoughts, I dream his dreams a little bit.”
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