The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gunpowder Season, which opened last year at the Swan Theatre in Stratford and has now transferred to London’s Trafalgar Studios, marked the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament with five politically charged plays.
Four of these are rarely staged works from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This includes Thomas More, a collaboration between Munday, Chettle, Heywood, Dekker – and Shakespeare. The experts disagree about exactly how much the Bard contributed and (as with the RSC’s revival of ‘Shakespeare’s’ Edward III a few years ago) while the play is not merely a historical curiosity it is deeply flawed.
The fact that five writers were involved, and that there were various revisions, is apparent in the disjointed and uneven style. In fact, there is no evidence that the play was ever performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, as the Master of Revels – the government censor – insisted on changes to tone down the potentially inflammatory nature of the subject-matter. He was concerned not so much with the portrayal of a Catholic saint – More’s religious beliefs are not really touched upon – but with the May Day riot of 1517 when Londoners exacted revenge on immigrants considered to be part of criminal gangs.
In this ‘speed history’ covering the last 18 years of More’s life, his meteoric rise is surpassed by an even more sudden downfall. From being a Sheriff in London, he is knighted after persuading the rioters to abandon their violence, then is appointed to the highest office of Lord Chancellor, only to be dismissed by the king for not signing certain ‘articles’ and executed for treason – all in a handful of scenes!
Robert Delamare’s stirring modern-dress production and Nigel Cooke’s charismatic performance as More manage to breathe life into this rough-edged, structurally weak drama. Although the first half is very fragmented, the early crowd scenes – reminiscent of the anarchic criminality of the mobs in Julius Caesar, or Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair – are staged with plenty of passion and dynamism. And the one scene which was definitely written by Shakespeare, in which More’s eloquent integrity ends the riot, is brilliantly done: it not only establishes law and order over mob rule but also More as a man of the people.
In between the street episodes, there is a strangely unsatisfying courtroom scene where More comes to the aid of a pickpocket facing the death sentence by means of a prank played on the prosecutor. Even more bizarrely after the interval, More plays host to the London mayor, where a troupe of bumbling actors entertain them with an allegory called ‘The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom’, in which More plays the part of Good Counsel. More’s humorous intelligence is further revealed but – unlike with Hamlet‘s ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ or even ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – here the play really seems to have lost the plot.
Fortunately, the dramatic momentum is regained later when we see More arrested in front of his family, and then awaiting his execution in the Tower. The intimate, domestic scenes are genuinely moving – despite some pretty ropey jokes about hanging – with More’s cheerful forbearance contrasting with his family’s tearful fears. Unlike Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (which coincidentally has just opened in the West End), the religious and political reasons for More’s break with Henry VIII and the events leading up to the Reformation are not examined – probably because Henry’s daughter Elizabeth was on the throne when the play was written!
In what is essentially a one-character play (despite a cast of 22), Nigel Cooke gives a rounded portrait of More, offsetting his saintly morality with impish humour – we are left with a strong impression of a compassionate, tolerant individual with a disarmingly eccentric wit who will not stoop to Machiavellian politics. We could do with a few more of those in public life today.