Keeping your mouth shut might seem like the ideal way to avoid getting into trouble – I’m sure we’ve all faced situations in our working lives, for example, where we’ve bitten our lips in order to avoid criticism, or much worse. And if anyone should know when to keep quiet, it ought to be a lawyer – none more so than the Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Blair, herself a barrister (a QC no less) – who happened to grace us with her presence at this performance.
But if Thomas More’s experience (or Cherie Blair’s for that matter) is anything to go by, keeping ‘Mum’ (as we English say) is no guarantee of saving your bacon. Because in 1535, in the reign of King Henry VIII, More was beheaded after being found guilty on a trumped-up charge of treason, but in reality for saying absolutely nothing about the matter of Henry VIII’s assumed supremacy as head of the Church in England, or his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Written by the highly successful writer Robert Bolt, and first aired in London in 1960, ‘A Man For All Seasons’ is still a riveting play. It delves into power, political intrigue and turmoil, as well as corruption, relationships and morality. And its plot focuses on a fascinating period of English history that we never seem to tire of. Bolt adapted his play for the 1966 film version (starring Robert Shaw as Henry VIII and Paul Scofield as More) and duly won an Oscar for it. Scofield also won an Oscar for his performance in the film version as well as a Tony for his Broadway stage performance in the role he effectively defined.
Martin Shaw leads this revival of ‘A Man For All Seasons’, as Thomas More. Apparently, Shaw and his producer friend, Bill Kenwright, have both been keen to produce this play for some time. And it’s a production they can both be proud of. The set is functional, but correctly defines the tone and mood of the piece with austere opulence; the costumes are authentic and carefully researched (one at least seemed identical to that worn by More in a painting by Holbein); and the overall standard of performances is very high indeed. Yet, the whole production had too much of a familiar ring to it – in several places, even the actors’ intonation and delivery seemed almost exactly the same as I remember in the film. Alsion Fiske turned in a fine, grumpy performance as More’s wife, but her intonation sounded almost the same as her film counterpart. And there were a number of occasions when I felt Shaw’s performance was very similar to Scofield’s. But then I suppose it’s not surprising that there should be similarities since the film is almost engrained in all our memories thanks to endless TV repeats of the film. However, I enjoyed Clive Carter’s performance as the Machiavellian Cromwell. It was a statesmanlike version that gave a more authentic, and yet more devious take on the character.
My only real misgiving with the production came near the end when More is visited in prison by his family. Although Shaw’s acting here was moving and poignant – showing the frailty and vulnerability of a man almost ready to capitulate – Shaw’s costume and appearance had a kind of Christ-like quality, which I’m not sure the character or the scene demanded. Still, that’s a minor niggle in what is a captivating and highly recommended production.
On consulting Michael Patterson’s remarkable and authoritative book entitled ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Plays’, I notice Patterson comments that the title ‘A Man For All Seasons’, is ‘curious’ because More is unfaltering in both his faith and integrity. But that’s actually the whole point of the title of this play – it means More was the same man during all seasons and not, unlike other politicians and powerful men of the time (and today?) one who bent with the times as easily as straw in the wind. Of course, standing by one’s principles is a sound principle in itself, but the consequences can be profound. In the end, More loses his life and his family are impoverished. So much for ‘keeping your mouth shut’.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Shrewdly acted and engrossing production." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Sadly what this chronicle play requires - speed, passion and energy - it rarely achieves in Rudman's ponderous production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "While Martin Shaw gives a fine performance as the obdurate hero in Michael Rudman's spectacular production, Bolt gives us a sanitised view of English history." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The story is a gripping one...this neglected and undeniably dated play still exerts a formidable dramatic power." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "A gripping chronicle play."