The Theatreguide.London Review
A Man for All Seasons
Haymarket Theatre 2006
Robert Bolt's 1960 drama about Sir Thomas More is a nice, solid, entertaining middle-brow play, an easy-to-digest history lesson (which might even be accurate, though that's irrelevant) with some juicy acting roles and the not-too-weighty suggestion of being About Something.
And I don't know how to stop this review from sounding like damning with faint praise.
The problem is that, by setting his sights not very high and achieving them, Bolt produces a successful play that has just the slightest whiff of contempt for its audience. At worst, this won't spoil the fun but might just take the edge off it. At best, it won't bother you at all.
Bolt attributes possible and dramatically effective personalities to some historical figures, and thus tells a story that is always interesting if not particularly suspenseful (we know how it's going to end).
Thomas More is trusted advisor and eventually chancellor to Henry VIII, but the only person of importance to hold out against the king's break with the Catholic Church in order to divorce his barren queen.
His moral authority is such that his abstention (he's clever enough never to actually come out against it) threatens the whole project, and all sorts of pressures are brought upon him to sign on. He refuses, and is eventually executed.
Bolt doesn't get bogged down in the moral and political issues, which is wise, since his few excursions into those areas produce muddied writing and purple prose, lots of talk about a man knowing his own true self that sounds like Arthur Miller rejects.
His Thomas More is no prig, but a practical, humourous man with a lawyer's enjoyment of talking rings around others just to remind himself how much smarter than them he is.
He also happens to be religious, and just can't accept the idea of a break with Rome, and part of the pleasure of his company is watching him manage for so long to stay within the letter of the law while not compromising his principles.
It's very much a star vehicle (it made Paul Scofield's career 45 years ago) and Martin Shaw rides it with the ease and confidence of a master, fleshing out the character with a warmth and intelligence that make his saintly and suicidal purity believable and admirable.
Bolt invents (or, rather, steals bodily from Thornton Wilder's Our Town) a narrator figure he calls The Common Man, who sets the scene, plays a half-dozen small roles, and even reads from history books to fill in narrative gaps.
Tony Bell plays him with a cheeky good humour that is infectious and goes far toward keeping the play from getting too deep.
There are other strong performances from Alison Fiske as More's plain-speaking wife, Clive Carter as his nemesis Cromwell, Daniel Flynn as the King who is vain and imperious but not stupid, and Gregory Fox-Murphy as a particularly slimy minor villain.
Michael Rudman's direction keeps everybody's focus on the human story and away from the pitfalls of too much philosophising, and keeps the action flowing despite Paul Farnsworth's particularly clumsy multilevel set.
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