This week I faced a rather peculiar risk: that of overdosing on Thomas More, the 16th century lawyer and politician who, quite literally, lost his head by falling foul of King Henry VIII, late 6-wived monarch of this realm.
Earlier in the week, I saw the opening of the revival of Robert Bolt’s play ‘A Man For All Seasons’, which is based on More’s moral dilemmas about King Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and that monarch’s authority as Supreme Head of the Church in England. And here’s the RSC also featuring More, who once again meets a sticky end at the hands of the executioner, because of etc etc etc.
‘Thomas More’ is presented by the RSC as part of their ‘Gunpowder Season’, which is meant to ‘mark’ the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot – a counter-reformation conspiracy by Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I. The plot was discovered when one of the participants warned a prominent catholic who promptly informed the Government, and those involved met an even stickier end than that suffered by More.
Since More met his demise in 1535, some 70 years before the ill-fated Gunpowder Plot, it seems a little odd to include it in a celebration (if that’s the correct term to use here) of that event. But a couple of plays about ancient Rome are to follow in this season (which has already seen a run in Stratford during 2005) so anything seems possible. To be fair, the real theme of the season appears to be political intrigue, which is presented in a clutch of rarely seen or little-known plays, including one new one by Frank McGuinness that gives the background to the Gunpowder Plot itself.
‘Sir Thomas More’ (the play, that is) was written around 1592 but apparently was never performed in either Elizabethan or Jacobian times – probably because it might well have displeased the monarchy, which had been sufficiently offended by More to remove his head in the first place. The RSC have apparently decided that the original title had rather too much ‘title’ and accordingly have truncated it in a rather puritanical manner to plain and simple ‘Thomas More’.
Five anonymous writers put together the final script for ‘Thomas More’ – but it’s believed that they were Anthony Munday, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Henry Chettle, and last but definitely not least, William Shakespeare. There’s still some contention among scholars about the authorship including Shakespeare’s involvement. The only thing we know for certain is that lots of men were called Thomas in the 16th century.
There’s a considerable difference between the Thomas More in ‘Thomas More’, and the Thomas More in ‘A Man For All Seasons’ (which if the RSC ever produced it, would probably be truncated to ‘A Man In Season’). In ‘Thomas More’, we are delivered a kind of ‘foxy’ version of More, a quick-witted, streetwise lawyer who’ll stoop to any trick in the book to get his clients off the hook. The play describes him as a man of the people with considerable influence over them. We see this in the first half of the play when indigenous Londoners get upset by asylum seekers carting off their goods and wives, and then asking for money to support their purloined spouses. With no assistance forthcoming from the authorities, riot somewhat justifiably results. But Thomas More comes along, pacifies the revolting masses and promptly persuades them to pop along to the local prison while waiting the gracious judgement of the King. As a reward for sorting out the ‘bovver’, More is made a knight, a member of the King’s Privy Council and then Lord Chancellor – almost in the blink of an eye. A meteoric rise to fame – even by ‘Big Brother’ standards (the celebrity version of which also started this week).
But no sooner is he one of the top political dogs of the time, than More is required to ‘subscribe’ to a document - we’re never told what it is, but it’s pretty certain an Elizabethan or Jacobite audience would have known - which he declines to do, instantly demolishing his new-won fame and sealing his fate.
Nigel Cooke’s More is a complex character – witty, warm and friendly, but with a powerful intellect. It’s a strong and interesting portrayal, but there were times when Cooke seemed just a little too jolly and chipper to be totally credible. But it’s a fascinating take on the character nevertheless. And Cooke is well supported by the substantial cast who together provide a real insight into the seamy and tempestuous social conflicts of the time.
I’m glad to see that recycling appears to be another major theme of the RSC’s Gunpowder season. The basic set for ‘Thomas More’ reuses the brick background they used in ‘A New Way to Please You’. On top of that, the last cinema from the 1920’s has been raided for its seats, and some village church hall is now devoid of its fold-away trestle tables. The costumes are modern, including dinner jackets worn by the nobility which I felt grated somewhat against the script, perhaps in part because wearing a DJ these days is more a symbol of dressing for an occasion rather than a symbol of power or wealth.
The authors of ‘Sir Thomas More’ took a great personal risk in writing their play. But in doing so, left us an important legacy - a glimpse into a different and more dangerous kind of society reflecting some of the strikingly similar concerns we face today. If for no other reason, we owe it to the authors to see this work. At the same time, this worthy production in itself deserves support, even if there is rather a surfeit of Thomas More in London’s West End right now. If I had to choose between ‘Thomas More’ and ‘A Man For All Seasons’, I’d certainly opt to see the former, partly because it’s so rarely performed, but also because it throws a different light on the central character and his standing among ordinary people. But personally, I’m looking forward to no more More, at least for a while.
Production photo by Hugo Glendinning