In the run-up to the opening of Michael Rudman’s new production of A Man for All Seasons one key question concerned the critics. How would Martin Shaw handle what has to be the defining stage and screen role of Paul Schofield’s career?
The answer is very, very well. Shaw takes the role of Sir Thomas More and makes it his own. At no point did it feel like he was aping Schofield’s interpretation, nor did he seem to be taking a different approach just for the sake of it. He emerged as a great ensemble actor, yet his charisma and stature were irrepressible. He really is the star of this show.
Robert Bolt’s play describes Thomas More’s internal battle of conscience when King Henry VIII declares his intention to divorce Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn (and, in doing so, sever his ties with the Church of Rome). Finding it impossible to continue as Lord Chancellor, More stands down. When he will not acknowledge Henry’s Oath of Supremacy over the Church in England, he is imprisoned and later beheaded for treason.
The play is book-ended with the character of the Common Man, who acts as a chorus – both narrating and commenting on the unfolding tale. He also crops up in a number of different positions throughout the play, first as More’s servant and later as his prison guard. In this respect, the work approaches a pastiche of the Shakespearian history play.
This impression was avoided in the film version, which ditched the character altogether and made the whole story seem more like a documentary chronicle. However, the Common Man is essentially the title character – the man who is there in the background of nearly every scene, doing any number of jobs – and Tony Bell’s performance is so extraordinarily captivating, not to mention witty, that it’s a minor quibble.
The most moving scene of the play is when More’s daughter and wife come to visit him in his prison cell. The performances of both Shaw, as More, and Alison Fiske, as his wife Lady Alice, made this a most poignant climax, and Paul Farnsworth’s simple but evocative set provided a vivid backdrop.
The play takes its audience on an emotional journey, more so than the film did, opening with scenes of high comedy and concluding with the tragic farewell of the married couple. Shaw’s vocal manipulation was brilliant throughout, lyrical at first, then rasping and desperate in the prison scenes. And Fiske successfully conveyed the outrage and frustration felt by a powerless woman in her position, visibly shaking in fear at her husband’s inevitable fate, yet knowing why he has to die.
Henry VIII hardly appears in the play at all, save for a pivotal scene when he comes to visit the More household in the early stages of the play, and it’s to Daniel Flynn’s credit that he made such an impact as the King. One could sense his guilty obsession with getting his own way, and it was easy to believe that such a man was behind the many officials who come to coax, plead with, and finally force, More into submission.
In fact the standard of acting was uniformly high. Gregory Fox-Murphy was a plausibly weak Richard Rich, the man who sheds More’s friendship and offers the evidence that convicts him in the end; Paul Shelley a distinguished Duke of Norfolk; and Sophie Shaw (Martin’s Shaw’s real-life daughter) made an engaging Margaret More. Clive Carter was a bit histrionic as Thomas Cromwell, making his two long scenes with Richard Rich rather tedious. But those were the only dull moments in a riveting evening – one that is not to be missed.