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.
The play may never have been produced in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. That might have been as much due to the heavy hand of politics as to its artistic qualities – there were few times in Tudor and early Stuart London when portraying the city in riot could be guaranteed not to produce a copycat performance from the audience. But the fact that Thomas More has rarely been produced since is equally explicable, for the play has problems beyond the central one of More’s character. In many ways it is two plays shoehorned into one evening. The first is the lively riot and its aftermath; the second is the fall of More. The only real link between them comes when a “poor woman” (Michelle Butterfly) evades the guards taking More into the Tower to throw herself at his feet and proclaim him “the best friend the poor ever had”.
Another structural problem with the play is that More has no visible enemy – only the off-stage, barely mentioned, power of the king. He wrestles on stage with the crowd, but it is a multi-headed weakling; there’s no balancing force. Most of the other characters are little more than talking walk-ons. Michelle Butterfly in her first role as Doll Williamson, the woman who sets off the riot by resisting rape by one of the foreigners, manages to make an impression of powerful indignation and a very English sense of proper treatment, but few others stick in the mind. Most of the actors have three or four parts – a reflection in the way that this play is more a (highly inaccurate) telling of history than a logical dramatic performance. (For the record, More was certainly not a champion of the people, although he was something of a jester, and even published a low-brow verse comedy under his own name.)
Like the last RSC production at the Trafalgar Studios in central London, this is a modern dress production, and unlike the last this occasionally grates. Having a skinhead-style London rioter brandish a a pinch-bar then cry to one of his fellows “Prithee thee” is a jolt. Otherwise, the staging works well, the action nicely complemented by the onstage violin and accordion duo.
The text is delivered with typical RSC precision and style – there’s really not much to complain of in terms of the production; the weaknesses all arise from the original text. These are an entertaining two and a half hours – the clowning and fooling, the dramatic mob scenes see to that. But, despite the valiant contribution from Amnesty International to the programme that claims Sir Thomas as a prisoner of conscience, and the grouping of the play in the RSC’s Gunpowder, “political”, season, this is a play lacking a raison d’etre. It is unlikely to stick in your mind next week, let alone next month.