So, a second Sir Thomas More has arrived on the London stage within three days. Earlier in the week it was Robert Bolt's 20th-century version, last night it was the turn of William Shakespeare et al, with an effort dating back to about 1592. Yet these are two men who share little more than a name. In Bolt's play, Sir Thomas is a natural aristocrat if not an hereditary one; here he is very much a man of the people, consciously maintaining that persona, always ready with a quip and a jest, to the point of buffoonery.
That makes the job of Nigel Cooke in the title role of the RSC's production of Thomas More a difficult one. There are scenes in the first act in which he gets to play the statesman, as we watch the London mob - justly angered by the slights and scams of "foreigners" run rampant - being tamed by the power of their sheriff's wise words. More reminds them of the Tudor peace they have enjoyed for a generation, then conjures up before them the city they have created by their action - a Hobbesian world in which "men like ravenous fishes would feed on one another". He reminds them that they too might one day be forced to seek refuge in a foreign land, promises the King's clemency, and so induces them to lay down their arms.
This is the serious More, a mere sheriff of London, but an admirable man. Then, at the end of this scene, as More is collecting up the rioters' makeshift weapons, the Earl of Shrewsbury (Tim Treloar) arrives with two for him - the first a sword that marks his knighthood, then the mace that makes him Lord Chancellor. Elevation indeed, and we might expect to see more of the wise statesman emerge. Yet instead, from this point on we see little more than More the jester. Entertaining the great and good of London, whom he's now gone far beyond, he leaps around the stage like a hyperactive flea, eager to please, and happy to join in with the ragtag bunch of players that has turned up at his door, even the "boy" (Peter Bramhill), in fishnets and bustier, seriously past his prime for the role, who clowns in sexual parody.