Classically fine acting by an evenly excellent cast; a sumptuous set and costumes; beautifully balanced staging; the flowing speech and sharp humour of Robert Bolt – the new production of A Man for All Seasons at the Theatre Royal Haymarket has everything needed for a stunning evening’s entertainment. No complaints at all, except a central one about its moral balance – the compass point is on north, but where is it really pointed?
The fault cannot be laid on today’s actors or director, but the world has changed between 1960, when Bolt wrote the play, and 2006 – perhaps it is we who are unbalanced, not the play. Then, for a man to put absolute trust in the law, as Sir Thomas More does in believing that he can save his life by refusing to speak on his reasons for quitting the King’s service and subsequently refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy, might have been sensible enough. That was before Britain started up locking people without charge or trial in Belmarsh prison, or arresting them for reading out the names of the dead in Iraq in an entirely peaceful political protest.
We still want to believe in the rule of law, but we know all too well that rulers and governments determined to find a way to bring down an individual are all too likely to do so, even in Ye Goode Olde Englande. That belief can only be stronger, when the ruler is Daniel Flynn’s powerful, mercurial, dangerously immature Henry VIII. He swings from childlike pleading, to thunderous anger, to hysterical giggles in an attempt to seduce Martin Shaw’s Sir Thomas to do his bidding in getting rid of his now inconvenient first queen. It is clear that Henry truly believes in each political and religious position, just for so long as it suits him; a tantrum-prone three-year-old is on the throne.
And the man determined to meet and satisfy every swing of that mood is at hand, in the form of the Yes Minister-style Thomas Cromwell, played with powerful menace by Clive Carter, who looks uncannily like the Hans Holbein sketch of Henry’s chief minister reproduced in the programme. Both the man and the character were more than slimy henchmen; Carter’s Cromwell clearly comes to take Sir Thomas’s stance entirely personally, too personally for Sir Humprhy-style civil service detachment.
Shaw’s Sir Thomas is not entirely convincing in the first act; could this man really be being made Lord Chancellor, this quiet, if ascerbic, academic wordster? But in the second, as the inevitable martyrdom marches closer and closer, and his emotions slip the leash of cool reason, particularly in confrontations with Cromwell, Shaw grows and he radiates power and martyred force.
The smaller parts in Bolt’s play are finely balanced in matching pairs, and the staging often sets them on contrasting diagonals. The young men in this play are nothing of their elders, but the weak, foppish, far-from-bright perjurer Richard Rich (Gregory Fox-Murphy) perfectly matches the weak, fanatical but fluctuating, far-from-bright William Roper (John Sackville). The controlled but passionate, dry but practical Lady Alice (played with straight-backed rectitude by Alison Fiske) is matched by the Duke of Norfolk, an honest-enough aristocrat caught in a world of whirling words, who wants only to get back to the beefy pursuit of game and sport.
The decent, pretty, super-educated Meg (Sohie Shaw) – so brave in her Latin exchange with the King – is matched against the wizen and twisted Spanish ambassador (Clive Kneller), scheming, as is his trade, to push Sir Thomas towards martyrdom for his own political purposes. But standing alone is Tony Bell’s “Common Man” – the medieval-style Fool who – as is his traditional role – so often speaks uncomfortable truths. Bell is a fine Falstaff-style jester, and delivers his philosophy with an awkward honesty that is entirely disarming.
The set is gorgeous; linenfold patterns work both as sumptuous Chelsea house (with glowing gold lighting) and in the miserable Tower prison take on a grim darkness. Purists might complain that the two-level setting takes some of the action too far from the audience, but it works well enough in allowing movement and change, to slide in a spying envoy, and slip off an unfaithful servant.
So many words of praise, so few of criticism. And that small burr just under the seat cover, itching at your political conscience? Well, if this new Man for All Seasons raises, even unintentionally, the question of whether the play of words and the adversarial combat of the English courtroom can indeed be trusted to produce justice, that too is to the good.
Find more theatre, gallery, museum and book reviews on My London Your London. Tomorrow look for a review of the RSC production of Thomas More, who is definitely the man of the season in London.