It’s a long way from Middle Earth to 17th-century Massachusetts, but Richard Armitage has made the journey — and found a surprising link.
The British actor — dwarf warrior Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy — is now starring at London’s Old Vic Theatre as John Proctor, the decent man in a world gone mad in “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s modern classic about the Salem witch trials.
The play recounts the mania that swept a community of colonists in 1692, which resulted in 20 people being executed for witchcraft.
It’s a change of pace, to say the least. Armitage says the “The Hobbit” is “a big machine that you get to play a little cog in.” In “The Crucible,” Proctor — decent, tormented and flawed — is the center of the audience’s attention.
“I can feel that the audience are breathing his breath as they watch the play,” Armitage said. The show, in previews, opens Thursday.
But the actor says “there are threads and arteries” connecting the worlds of Miller and J.R.R. Tolkien— including their operatic scale.
“At the end of the second act of that opera (“The Hobbit”), my character says, ‘If this is to end in fire then we will all burn together.’ And in exactly the same place in Miller’s work — and it definitely wasn’t plagiarized — I say, ‘We will burn, we will burn together.’”
Armitage, 42, admits to being a little apprehensive about his return to the stage after a dozen years in television and movies. He’ll soon be onscreen in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and in the tornado thriller “Into the Storm.”
Armitage, who once had himself water-boarded for a torture scene, took a similarly hands-on approach while preparing for “The Crucible.”
“I went and worked with some cows,” said Armitage. He also visited Salem. Although he found the tourist site there a bit disappointing — “Disneyland for witches” — he called the village “quite magical.”
“Seeing the actual bricks and mortar … It’s just something that connects you to the reality of real people that this happened to,” he said.
“We think, ‘Oh it’s a period piece about some kind of hysteria about witches,’” he added. “(But) it’s here today in civilized Western societies. In America, in England. This slow feeding of fear to pitch neighbor against neighbor. It’s not as far away as you might think.”
Tall and dark-haired, Armitage has an old-fashioned, matinee-idol quality. His bearded, brooding face stares from posters all over London’s subway system. One recent afternoon he sat in his dressing room, reading fan letters — actual paper letters.
He’s no stranger to leather-jerkin roles — he was the villainous Guy of Gisborne in the BBC series “Robin Hood” — and it’s easy to imagine him fitting snugly into Proctor’s breeches.
But this is not a production that plays it safe. Director Yael Farber is a South African with a reputation for a passionate, challenging approach to scripts.
“Scorcher’ is way too mild a description,” was The New York Times’ verdict on “Mies Julie,” her South Africa-set version of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.”
“People start to focus on how handsome or excellent a production it is, and that’s just not what I’m in theater for,” said Farber. “I’m in theater to try to tap some kind of vein of truth (so) that the audience gets taken on an experience that changes them.
“I’ve also learned that some people just don’t want that — but then don’t come and watch this production!”