I don't know if this is post is especially necessary after Harriet's on the same topic, in which she says a good deal of what's been in my mind. Still, I do want to speak my mind just a little (well, a lot) about Dr Crabbe, whose enlarged presence in Neil Armfield's production of Peter Grimes has been cordially dividing opinion.
As I have said, I wholeheartedly love Dr Crabbe. This is for a multitude of reasons, not all of which I trust myself fully to explain. One of them has to be the way he is played by Peter Carroll. Carroll's performance is so nuanced and so perfectly measured that his presence can only be a joy (and a privilege). And he's so thoroughly convincing — especially for somebody like me, I suspect, who has never seen him in any other role — that he seems really to become Crabbe, to inhabit him so fully, it's almost a ghostly encounter. He's possibly helped in this by the fact that this version of the character is very much Armfield's creation, so that there's no canonical ideal for which he must strive: he doesn't need to be as good as anyone else's Dr Crabbe, because there is no other Dr Crabbe at all like him. Unlike Stuart Skelton (who shakes it all off so easily anyway) his role comes baggage-free.
I also accept him because, quite frankly, this production (and this opera) leave me in no fit state to do anything else. Even if the idea bothered me in principle, in practice I'd be too busy stitching myself back together to notice. But you see, the idea doesn't bother me, even in principle, because the truth it is, I don't have too many hard and fast principles when it comes to the staging of opera. I don't like willful stupidity, I don't like dullness and I don't like to hear the music itself assaulted. That's it. Beyond that, I take each production as it comes and I try to accept it on its own terms, which is why, to date, I can think of only two or three productions I've really strongly disliked, and even then, I could probably still find a few good words for them. Besides, putting the author or the composer on stage is not an unheard of device; Armfield in fact has stronger backing for this decision than most, since his author is actually there in the libretto, ripe for the interpreting.
There is the argument that his presence at the side of the stage — observing all, doing sometimes very little — is distracting. I never found him so. Perhaps my focus is too narrow, but in this show I rarely find myself regarding the full breadth of the stage. My eyes and my mind are forever being dragged about by this or that conversation or character. For me, Dr Crabbe only comes into focus when he's brought there, either by his own movements or by Peter. I don't regard his involvement in Peter's madness as intrusive: his unearthly air seems to me to heighten the hallucinatory quality of Peter's turmoil. Note, too, that Armfield's program note links his Dr Crabbe not just to the poet, but to Grimes's own father, who appears in the poem — and of whom the original Peter Grimes does indeed have visions, alongside those of his dead apprentices.
And if we're speaking of intrusion, then I think it's worth noting that, as all-pervasive as Dr Crabbe's presence is, the role he plays is very much that of emotionally invested observor and not puppetmaster. He may look a bit like Bernard Shaw, but that's where his resemblance to this poster ends. Peter is his creation, but having created him and set him down in the Borough, he can no longer intervene. I know there have been productions of operas in which the composer directs the action, moving the players and so forth; this is not what Armfield and Carroll do with Dr Crabbe. I think that's a big part of the intense affection and sympathy I feel for his character: in many ways, he's in the same position as I am — deeply concerned for Peter, but ultimately powerless to do anything but offer love and support, and let fate run its course. When, at the beginning of Act 3, he sits, exhausted, and has a drink, he looks just as shattered as I feel.
Finally, lest this become an entirely theatrical essay, I want also to put a word in for what I think is the extreme musicality of Armfield's Dr Crabbe. It's another reason why I don't regard him as distracting. Everything that the character does is in some way reflected in the score. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the Interludes. Staging orchestral passages of operas is a tricky business, but ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you Neil Armfield. Yes, on one very practical level, Peter Carroll is acting as a stagehand, changing a set which needs to be changed. And yet he's doing much more than that. Let me put it this way: initially, I was tempted to close my eyes during the Interludes, so as better to focus on the extraordinary music. And then I realised that watching Carroll's subtly choreographed movements was having the same effect. This, incidentally, is a quality which extends far beyond just Dr Crabbe: Armfield's ability to seamlessly match action with music is quite astounding.
You see, this is the effect this Grimes has upon me. I've written this much on just one aspect. There are probably a dozen other facets of it which could draw at least as many words out of my virtual pen. I still haven't fathomed the riches of this beautiful Peter Grimes. I cannot stop thinking about it. I doubt I've finished writing about it either.