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A CurtainUp London London Review
A Man For All Seasons

I defy anyone to live in that cell for a year and not appreciate the seriousness of his position
---- Thomas More
A Man For All Seasons
Martin Shaw as Thomas More
(Photo: Arthur Leone)
It is most interesting to revisit Robert Bolt's groundbreaking historical play forty years after it was filmed. In 1960 it was a West End stage hit and launched the acting career of Paul Scofield as a star. In 1962 A Man For All Seasons was acclaimed on Broadway with the Tony for best play and additional Tonys for best actor and best director. After his stage success with this, Robert Bolt was employed to write the film scripts for David Lean's masterly epics, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. Nowadays this play is studied in schools and universities and played frequently by those same institutions for its combination of fine writing and historical pertinence. Martin Shaw has the uneviable task of following Sir Paul Scolfield in the title role but in no way is his performance lacking.

A Man For All Seasons is a straightforward historical drama chronicling the life of Thomas More who rose under King Henry VIII to the heady heights of Lord Chancellor. He resigned his post and was imprisoned in the Tower when he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and was eventually beheaded as a traitor. Much of the time More used silence, refusing neither to endorse nor criticise Henry VIII's divorce, re-marriage and the English Reformation religious split with Rome. His act of conscience has won him praise in particular from Catholic quarters and last century he was canonised as Saint Thomas More. Bolt's play does not just deal with the history but paints the picture of the effect on More's family. It's a riches to rags story.

The night I saw More's play, the wife of our Prime Minister Cherie Blair was there with her daughter and this set me musing on who in the modern political climate is More's equivalent, the man of conscience who resigns and who would lay down his life for his beliefs. Of course, happily in twenty first century Britain, people who refuse the government oath are spared execution but there are those who have sacrificed their careers for principle. My problem with Bolt's play is that it seems only to put forth one side of the issue. What was More's point in maintaining his silence? Was he merely fence sitting or just trying to avoid the inevitable punishment for opposition to the king? Was it really loyalty to England that was the reason for his silence? Bolt may paint More as a saint but what clemency did this man mete out to Protestants who were sentenced to death when he was Lord Chancellor? We know that Henry VIII was obsessed with the need for a male heir but maybe his motives were not just lustful but that he saw a political necessity to provide a clear heir and so avert the civil war that had ended only half a century before, the War of the Roses.

Although some of the issues seem inevitably simplified, this is still a fine dramatic work. Daniel Flynn's Henry VIII is as short tempered and self centred as his red hair suggests and is confined to one short but very effective scene in confrontation with More. Thomas Wolsey (Brian Poyser)'s outgoing Lord Chancellor has a sad inevitability in the price of failure to deliver what the king requires when Catherine of Aragon has the massed royal families of Europe backing her. The play does not show Anne Boleyn, who was played by Vanessa Redgrave in the film but concentrates instead on More's family, his stubborn and often non-comprehending wife Alice (Alison Fiske) and his scholarly daughter Margaret here sweetly played by Martin Shaw's daughter Sophie. Tony Bell as the Common Man narrates much of the play and re-invents himself throughout according to opportunity. Thomas Cromwell (Clive Carter) the architect of the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries is coolly calculating as the expedient politician who also falls out of favour. I liked Bolt's way of telling us the fate of each of the three who tried him before More's trial: Cranmer burnt at the stake for heresy under Mary Tudor, Thomas Cromwell beheaded in 1540 and the Duke of Norfolk, who died before the order for his execution could be carried out. It puts More's ordeal in perspective. The scenes where More has to say goodbye to his family are genuinely moving.

Michael Rudman's production has a stagey staircase to give the playing area an interesting depth and the backdrop is a reproduction of an elaborately carved Tudor rose panelling. The costumes are fine, except for a scarf and dark robe which make More look as if he is wearing a modern dark raincoat, but the whole production feels more historic than fresh.

Written by Robert Bolt
Directed by Michael Rudman

Starring: Martin Shaw
With: Tony Bell, Gregory Fox-Murphy, Paul Shelley, Alison Fiske, Sophie Shaw, Brian Poysner, Clive Carter, Clive Kneller, Tim Daish, John Sackville, Daniel Flynn, Maev Alexander, Tim Frances
Design: Paul Farnsworth
Lighting: Nick Richings
Sound: Colin Pink
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 901 3356
Booking to 8th April 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th January 2006 performance at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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