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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Thomas More
Trafalgar Studios      January 2006

On display in the British Library are several pages of a manuscript of this play written in the 1590s, almost certainly by Anthony Munday, with corrections, crossings-out and additions in a half-dozen different handwritings.

One of them is Shakespeare's.

The best scholarly guess is either that everybody and his brother was being recruited to try to deal with the official censor's complaints, or that an old play was being revised for a new production, much the way films are remade with updated scripts.

We know that Shakespeare got his start as a writer doing this sort of work - Henry VI, The Taming of the Shrew and possibly even Hamlet are reworkings of earlier plays by others.

Oddly, the Shakespeare connection, partial as it may be, has not led to much theatrical interest in this particular play - there is no record of its being done in its day, and precious little over the centuries until this RSC production. And the wait turns out not to have been particularly worth it.

More like the kinds of plays written ten or twenty years earlier, it is a simple rise-and-fall saga with little in the way of depth, characterisation, poetry or resonances. And director Robert Delamere has done nothing to enhance it and a lot to get in its way.

The play gives a very condensed account of Thomas More's career, focusing on his part in quelling a 1517 riot and thus coming to the king's attention, and then on his refusal to support the king's break with the Catholic Church and his execution.

(One obvious censorship problem is that the play can't get very specific about the latter, referring briefly and obliquely to some document he won't sign.)

Unlike the play Edward III, another possible addition to the Shakespeare canon that the RSC explored a couple of years ago, this one proves to have little of interest and little indication of his hand.

Even the one scene scholars generally agree is most likely Shakespeare's, in which More lectures the rioters on the importance of civil order, has none of the poetry or depth of thematically similar scenes in Troilus or Coriolanus.

The More depicted in this play is not the sober man of principle of Robert Bolt's Man For All Seasons, but something of a jolly playboy, apt to treat every situation as an opportunity for wit and wordplay.

(Predictably and, by that point in the play, rather annoyingly, he goes to the executioner with jokes about being so absent-minded he'd forget his head if it weren't attached.)

While that light portrait is obviously intentional (and in keeping with one traditional image of More), it doesn't make for good drama.

This More is a lightweight who never rises to heroic or tragic stature. And, with the moral-religious conflict bowdlerised, the events of the play just don't seem to matter.

Robert Delamere commits the cardinal sin of directors - not trusting his play and making it obvious that he doesn't.

One might forgive doing it in rehearsal clothes on a bare stage, even though it just looks like a 1950s attempt to be avant-garde and Brechtian.

But making one of the rioters addled and one of the actors in a masque performed for More's guests a drunk, smells too much of directorial desperation, trying to find something interesting to put on the stage.

And turning that masque into a self-parody rather than playing it with any respect for the material is an open announcement of the director's contempt for the material. And if he doesn't care for the play, why should we?

Nigel Cooke plays More as the lightweight joker he is directed to, and he can't be blamed for doing as he's told. A few in the quite large cast have cameo scenes or sustained characterisations that register - Michelle Butterly as a feisty rioter, Tim Trelgar as an oily nobleman, Keith Osborn as a dignified bishop.

The play is a curiosity that Shakespearean students and scholars will almost certainly want to see, if only to discover that there's so little there worth seeing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Thomas More  - Trafalgar Studios 2006

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